Lessons learned trying to run a pinball tournament after a tornado

I wish this story had a happier ending, but alas, the venue didn’t have power restored by Sunday morning and the show was cancelled. It was a heart-wrenching experience, but one that taught me / reinforced a few things, so I thought I’d share for the benefit of everyone.

Background: This weekend I was supposed to be running the O-Town Throwdown tournament as part of the Ottawa Pinball & Gameroom Show, which bills itself as Canada’s Longest Running Annual Pinball Expo. It was being held at a city-run sportsplex and was scheduled to run Saturday and Sunday. Friday during set-up a massive storm came through town and the power went out.

Turns out the storm spawned two tornadoes, one of which touched down within a couple of miles of the venue, and the station that supplied power to the facility was essentially destroyed. It was very localized damage, so there was hope that the power might be restored in time to salvage some of the show.

This meant that evolving contingency plans were required as timelines changed.

Lessons learned:

  1. You can do a remarkable amount of set-up without electricity (with some caveats - see point 2). Machines can be leveled, the registration area can be set up, volunteers can be briefed, etc. Don’t stop setting up just because you’ve lost power! You want to have as little left to do as possible when the power comes back on.

  2. Don’t leave administrative tasks that can be done ahead of time to the last minute. I had planned to finish setting up the scorekeepers’ accounts, finalize the games in the software, etc. All of this required Internet access. This might have delayed the start time unnecessarily.

  3. Have an offline copy of key documentation as possible. Plan to reference manuals or Google Docs on your phone? That doesn’t work well when the cell network is overwhelmed and you can’t even make calls. Download or print anything you expect to have to reference.

  4. Communicate the situation and your plans as best you can. Some people travel the day of and need to know if it’s worth the effort. Stick to facts and avoid speculation. I got flack for being overly positive about the possibility of holding the tournament, but that was based on the official information we were receiving and I stand by it. Present the facts and allow people to make their own decision with the information available.

  5. Have plans B, C, D, etc. What happens if the power comes back in the next hour? In four hours? Not until the next day? Can you shift qualifying? Does it need to be shortened? What about a format change? Decide what possible scenarios are acceptable and develop various timelines accordingly.

  6. Know what’s important to you. This will shape your fallback plans. For me the goal of this tournament was to expose the public to competitive pinball as well as generate some WPPRs, so I needed to balance accessibility and point value. Prize pool wasn’t a super critical factor, but I recognized a lot of people were travelling in, and the last thing I wanted to do was to cut my volunteers’ extra qualifying time, if I ended up sticking with best game format. YMMV. My point is that being able to articulate my priorities made it a lot easier to decide which course of action to take and defend it as required.

  7. Acknowledge the help that you’re getting and ask if you need any. Don’t take for granted that your volunteers are going to stick around. Make sure you communicate with them specifically. Some might only have been available for a certain time, some might be willing to step up more given the circumstances.

My biggest take away was that all the planning in the world isn’t going to prevent things from going wrong, but it will make things a lot easier when they do. I am generally a very organized person (point 2 notwithstanding) and that saved my butt this weekend. (Well, it would have had the show gone on! I’m confident we could have pulled off a great tournament had power been restored.)

That and the volunteers. I am humbled by the amount of support I got during this ordeal even though the event didn’t go on. We have an amazing community and I’m proud to be a part of it.

I chose to share because I think a lot of the points are equally valid for a variety of circumstances, from temporary blackouts to network outages to just running a tournament in general.

I hope you’re able to learn from my experience! And that you aren’t faced with a disaster of this degree any time soon. :slight_smile:


Wow, what a crazy event. A lot of good learnings from it as well. Glad nobody was hurt.


This one in the above was the week after TPF a couple years ago. Could only image would would have happened if it was a week sooner and a little closer. Some things we just can’ control :frowning: ***the hotel you see in that picture is where the TPF event is held.

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We were very lucky. The venue was built like a bunker, so it was actually a pretty safe place to be! Damage was very localized, it’s a bit surreal.

The resilience of the community and the desire to go on blew me away. Even though there was no power Saturday morning, folks showed up at 6am to set up their booths under emergency lighting. We joked about having a tournament on the machines that were there for the historical booth because they didn’t need power!

When we were kicked out of the building because there was no hot water, people spent hours hanging out in the parking lot in the hopes that things could continue.

Someone posted a 3-minute walkthrough video from just before teardown:

It was heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

Megan, I quickly skimmed over your Facebook event link, and the updates you posted. I think you handled it as best you could, and I didn’t read any speculation that went too far: you presented the facts as you knew them, and maintained a positive attitude that left open possibilities of how you would proceed. I don’t feel that your posts were misleading. Great job handling a difficult situation!

This is an excellent point. And a big part of what my team and I do at work: developing Business Continuity Plans (BCP, for short). I think it’s healthy to have a some minimal BCP for a pinball tourney (such as the PAPA rule written ahead of time for what happens when a machine is down for too long, or goes down permanently in a best-game format). But at the same time, thinking through a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis and developing a BCP take time – and as a TD/event planner, time is precious.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t beat yourself up over this “act of God” completely disrupting your event. And if you’re getting a bunch of flak from unhappy would-be-participants, I’m really sorry. They have every right to be upset at the circumstance (anyone would be!), but they have no right to be upset with you.

Thanks for sharing this.


Also worth noting that participants have priorities of their own. Something that may not matter to you may be a priority for them. Player Z might be coming for fun while player A might be chasing the state championship worth a sizable portion of that fat stack of pinball cash @pinwizj is sitting on.

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Every morning is bigger than the previous morning :slight_smile:


I think a lot of people would like to see it ~$400 more :wink:

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Well look what do we have here? :slight_smile:

Everybody underground now?

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Fortunately the threat has long passed! Can’t live your life as if a tornado might strike at any time, just be prepared in case it does. :wink:

One thing I forgot to mention that would be useful in the event of simply a network outage: have a back-up method of scorekeeping ready.

Most of us rely on some form of software to track results these days, whether it’s DTM or MatchPlay or whatever. Make sure you have paper and a pen or a laptop with Excel or something offline where you can record the results. A few months ago I found a template for a scoresheet on MP, but can’t seem to find it anymore. @haugstrup, is it still on the site?

Think you did a great job with the situation. Something similar happened at the Cactus Jacks Silverball Showdown Circuit event before. Tornado/storms passed through and power was out for playoffs IIRC. We got updates from @alveolus as he was in a similar position as you were. We ended up watching Twister at the AirBnB a bunch of us had rented and it was fun to see where all those callouts in the game came from (as well as being in the aftermath of a real tornado was kinda cool for us NorCal folks who only get earthquakes and regular storms but never tornadoes)…

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They sure are! Click here: Match Play Events Open Thread

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Can’t you use your smartphone? I could have sworn I’ve seen scorekeepers using them in the past but could be wrong. Without power the hotel internet wont work but your 3G/4G “should”. One thing to consider before going the paper and pen route.

Every situation will be different of course, but the one we were in was one where the cell network infrastructure also took a hit. Between loss of towers and increased volume of traffic due to everyone being on their phone at once, I couldn’t even reliably make phone calls. That’s why I started to put the time I wrote the update right in the body of the message because I had no idea how long it would actually take for the text to be posted to Facebook.

Even if you don’t have something as catastrophic happen, when you have a large number of people in a concentrated area, it tends to tax the cell network. I run into this problem at music festivals and other big public events. This may or may not be an issue for you, but the reliability of your network is definitely something to think about.


The joys of Verizon and a big city but I get your point :slight_smile:

Really good post Megan - thanks for sharing.

I try and ensure with any competition I run, that if I was to lose the use of the computer the competition could still carry on with pen and paper, even if it meant scores running a little slower. There is increasingly an over reliance on automatically defaulting to using a computer or phone for even the simplest of tasks (whether they be pinball related or not).

Need to randomly allocate 48 players in to 12 groups of 4? Why bother writing an app or program in a spreadsheet, just have the players pick from a deck of cards?

Need to maintain a queue for a Flippin’ Frenzy/non-stop pinball style comp - individual paper scoresheets do the job better than any electronic system ever could.

I’m far from being a luddite, but it frustrates me seeing the dependency people have on technology. I was in a shop, just last week, and the woman at the till had to use a calculator to work out how much it should be because I bought 10 packs of cigarettes at £8.20 each and the scanner wasn’t working. Despite the fact that I had already given her £82 in cash. It’s just embarrassing.


Agreed and understood the dependency on technology.

I asked this though as the program is already in place and accessible from a smartphone. It’s no different updating scores on it than using a tablet. The only reason to NOT use one would be if the network was down.

Or I guess if the tournament wasn’t already set-up in the system.

Unfortunately with the big tournaments that go on now we are slaves to the technology. Honestly, I don’t there is anyway to go back. I can’t imagine the work it would take to do a pump and dump tournament for 100+ competitors by writing all of the scores down and taking the best games for everyone on an excel sheet. If DTM ever went down at our event we would be screwed. I just pray and hope nothing as bad as this happens at another event. More so if it does I really hope all that attended would understand no matter how far they traveled for the event that there is only so much an organizer can do to have a business continuity or disaster recovery plan in place for these instances. I think you guys handled this the best you could chalk it up to bad luck!!!

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