When will pinball be considered "BIG" again?

So as I am often doing on a Thursday afternoon I was surfing around looking for more pinball things to look at, read, watch, ooggle…whatever. And I came in this article about @bkerins from 2008


Eight years after the close of the article made me think:

So, what does the future hold for the game of pinball?

“I don’t know,” Martin said. "I’ve wondered that for 20 years now. It always seems like it’s slowly becoming less and less common. … But every time we have a juniors division [in the tournament], and every time people come here and bring their kids, the kids love it. You never hear kids come and say, ‘Oh, this is stupid, I wanna play my PlayStation.’ When they’re actually doing it and seeing it, it’s still very, very cool.

“Is that gonna save things? I don’t know. It’s gonna keep it alive in the consciousness. Maybe in a better economy, a different day, pinball machines will be big again. I hope, I hope, I hope.”

So kids. When, if ever, can we say pinball is big again. I mean when was the last time it was TRUELY big? Late 70’s. What is our benchmark? We all know, more of less, about the come backs in the mid-80’s and 90’s and here we are in the mid 10’s seeing a revival. ALL these amazing tournaments, streams, instagram accounts, podcasts, games!

Now…pinball will probably never be like eSports. Maybe, but it would be tough. It’s so easy for a kid to spend $50 on a video game and feel like they are a part of the crowd. Day or night they can get into that world. For many of us lucky people we have that luxury, but it’s not $50 accessible. SO that’s a road block. But it shouldn’t be a stumbling bock.

Use what we have, what’s good about pinball and rise UP! Use the new arcades popping up to help pinball rise UP! Keep opening new Twitch accounts and get those pinball viewer numbers to rise UP! Start a podcast to fill people in on your local pinball scene to keep interest rising UP!

Let’s do this people! PINBALL 2017…#1! All the way! Make pinball BIG again! I hope, I hope, I HOPE!


I consider it BIG right now. A 740 player tourney selling out in less than 1/2 hour? BIG! I got back into pinball in 2009 and in our relatively small market(Birmingham, AL) pinball is the biggest it has ever been. Instead of one location with 12 machines, we now have about 5or 6 locations with about 50-60 total machines. I started a league in 2009 which continues to grow and guess what? A second league in our area is starting soon. And as far as leagues in Alabama, we used to be the only one. Now there are two other cities with pinball leagues, Huntsville and Auburn. More local tourneys are taking place as well. Pinball is big right now!


Yeah. I agree. It is big now. But I was leaving the door open to discussion. Big big big.

If you go by the number of pinball machines sold, 1992 was 100K+. I doubt all the manufacturers combined sold 1/4 of that last year. The other consideration is that back then there were a lot more places for teenagers (new blood) to play the games. We’re not out of the woods yet.


Sales are a good indicator. But I’m thinking more playing. There are so many machines out there to be played. It would be cool if there were twice as many. But maybe how close to the point where people aren’t AS shocked to find out pinball still exists. To the point where it’s…Like poker…Well more like poker.

In my head we are sitting at a really nice medium. Plenty of venues and games coming out. Lots of leagues and tournaments. Yet it still feels like a small community. Where it’s possible to get to know all the players eventually


Machine sales are not as good an indicator as cashbox take, adjusted for inflation, i.e. number of games played. We’re still way behind the 1970’s and 1980’s there. I believe pinball took in more money than movies in its peak years.

Tournament pinball, on the other hand, is at an all time peak.

BTW, part of why machine sales are down is that there are so many older machines still working; the used game market is larger than it used to be, and is far larger than the new market.


I actually have a lot of takes on this and I don’t know how to organize them sorry.

  1. The total prize money ever paid out to the 3 biggest eSports games (from http://www.esportsearnings.com/games) is about as much as a single NFL team’s salary cap. With some inflation adjustment for previous years you’re still talking about a whole category of sports that’s not BIG at all when compared to major sports around the world. And plus, League and Dota are pretty much directly competing for market share since they’re almost exactly the same game. The situation resembles pre-1960s pre-consolidation AFL vs NFL stuff more than any big sport now.

  2. Video Games and Pinball have pretty much completely diverged since games left the arcade. Redemption games don’t count for anything in this analogy. But Video Games have completely moved into software land which makes a world of difference. The arcade cabinet which stood next to pinball machines back in the day was at one point the only vehicle to deliver the game. Back when home consoles were crippled versions of the hardware you had in an arcade cabinet you could get away with a lot more. When consumer electronics became cheap enough and powerful enough to match anything in the arcade you could put all your hardware guys into software and work on creating a game that has some incredible skill potential and is available 24/7 and is free but takes advantage of a loophole in our brains that makes us gamble on in-game crates that make our gun look cooler or whatever.

There are a couple of reason I don’t like comparing pinball to eSports necessarily, or even the term eSports in general. First is that there’s an entire business model put in place by Riot, Valve, Blizzard, and the 3-man team that’s been working on trying to make World of Tanks a thing for the last 80 years that is based on growing the game’s popularity as a sport. Not only do they get some part of the sponsorship money or crowdfunded money they also are hosting these massive advertising events for their products. Within Dota 2 Valve has built in its own crowdfunding platform for the prize pool for The International lets fans contribute directly to the prize pool in return for cosmetic items and stuff in the game in this closed system entirely run and managed by Valve. It’s brilliant from a business standpoint.

Also, when comparing pinball to eSports you’re always going to compare it to the leading eSports and what you could instead compare it to is the hundreds of stupid extreme sports invented every year by 26-year-old adrenaline junkies in southern california like Drone Racing which last about as long as they are viral on buzzfeed.

Conclusions: I’ve been involved with the competitive pinball thing for 3 and a half years. Once I found out about it I was instantly hooked. There’s absolutely been this huge shift in the coverage of pinball from “oh huh? there are still pinball arcades?” to “Ah well we already know pinball is awesome but you have to check out this particular place next time you’re in Seattle.” The player base is way larger. The number of locations is way bigger. The competitive scene and home markets are both much bigger. What do we have like 4 or 5 manufacturers producing pinball games right now, up from 1 in just that short time period? I mean you can make up an arbitrary point where pinball is “big” as well as an arbitrary way to measure the total economy of pinball (wherever you draw the line) and say “ah it isn’t” or “wow it is” and you’d be right.


Well Timmy has it then. It’s big! OK moving along. Ha. No thanks for that. I mean I agree. We are in a great time for Pinball. Just curious as to where we are in the timeline. In the end we won’t know until we are out of it and can reflect. Just seemed to be really really cool that in the span of 8 years…And less… We can go from the edge of extinction to thriving. We got a Disney movie on our hands kids!!!

My thoughts on this (I’m typing this upat close to 4 in the morning and it’s cold, so pardon me if my thoughts seem short and scattered at times):

Pinball is growing, but it’s not yet big.

That being said, “big” is a very subjective term, and what may be big to one person may not necessarily be big to another. To me, pinball has become big when it is a common enough sight and knowledge on it is widespread enough for it to be mainstream. It is not there yet, and far from it. I am also talking about pinball as a whole, and level of familiarity with the general public, not specific things like competition or specific sectors like the bar scene in Seattle.

There are more people getting into it, but for whatever reason, word of mouth doesn’t really spread very easily in pinball compared to some other things. Someone might be introduced to pinball, but I hardly ever see those somebodies introduce other people to pinball after that. There’s no chain recommendation here that’s necessary for word-of-mouth buzz the way it happened with, say, Paranormal Activity or Splatoon.

I know the first post was comparing pinball competitions to eSports, and whole eSports brings in millions of viewers, it’s still just a tiny part of the video gaming landscape. For every person who plays Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and competes at EVO, there are at least ten thousand others who don’t. For every person who gets an invitation to the Pokémon World Championships, there are at least a hundred thousand others playing those same Pokémon games who don’t.

Something else to consider is mobile gaming. Mobile gaming is currently the dominant kind of game people play to pass the time, which is what pinball used to do. Pinball was successful in earlier decades because of a lack of competition. For pinball to become big again, it has to wrest that away from mobile gaming, which I don’t think will be happening any time soon considering the sheer presence games like Clash Royale and Bloons are having on the general public. For better or worse, they are giving what the mainstream wants, which is cheap, quick, accessible games. For that matter, mobile games are currently eating away at traditional console video games (which, in turn, destroyed the arcade video game scene outside of Japan).

This is, of course, talking only about the Anglosphere. (And from what I can gather, pinball’s popularity seems to be at roughly the same level between the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. I don’t think it’s really up there in South Africa, Liberia, Belize, India, and so forth though.) I can at least say that in the west, if pinball isn’t big, at least you can expect people on the street to know what pinball is, even if they’re outdated depictions as seen in mass media. At least they recognize the word, and they know you play it by hitting a ball with a flipper by pushing a button. During my trips to Asia, I cannot even say that much. Again, with the exception of Japan, there has never been much effort to import pinball machines over (and who can blame them, considering shipping costs?), and as a result, even that level of familiarity is lost there. In one of my previous jobs, I worked with people doing community service. One of them had immigrated over from China a few years ago (I think he’s here for college) and asked me what I was into. When what I listed got to pinball, he asked me, “What’s pinball?” and I had to explain to him what it was. I don’t think he really understood even after that.

But yeah, pinball has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Some of them that I can think of include (in no order):

  1. Grabbing attention away from people into mobile gaming.
  2. Standardize a card-based system of payment, because a lot of people don’t carry cash anymore.
  3. Having it in places with high foot traffic. Place them in bars all you want, but you won’t get a lot of visitor traffic. (At least, the bars around here don’t. Almost all of them are strictly for locals.)
  4. Overcome the maintenance hurdle, which is why operators would rather have those Neo•Geo collections I see everywhere.
  5. Grabbing attention away from people who would rather play prize machines, like Key Master.
  6. Dealing with whatever it is that causes word-of-mouth to rarely spread beyond first-degree.
  7. Maybe traditional advertisement in some way.
  8. And the biggest thing of all is accessibility. It may seem really obvious to you and me, who have been into pinball long enough to understand its nonverbal language, but to a beginner, it’s not! Something as basic as starting a game, or how many balls you get over a game, or a phrase like, “Lock is it” is not obvious at all to a beginner! Just two weeks ago, I had to demonstrate the start button to someone, as he was 100% convinced the machine was busted because he inserted in some quarters and the game didn’t just load a ball onto the plunger. He left after the first ball; looks like he thought the game ended there. (I made a topic here specifically addressing things obtuse to beginners.)

That being said, I do find it interesting there seems to be an earnest effort to try to make pinball more popular. In a lot of other fandoms I’m a part of, there’s a strong contingent working to try to keep it niche. (You know, “It’s Popular, Now It Sucks.”)

One more thing: When I see pinball in places like Round 1, they are located by the bar, away from all of the other arcade machines. I see that as a problem. All the people come in and they go play the other machines, and most don’t even know the pinball is there. Even if they’re not interested in pinball, they don’t notice them. I don’t know if that’s a problem with the people who run these arcades not considering pinball as the same as other arcade games, or if it’s a problem with the pinball business not aiming them at the BlazBlue crowd these arcades gather though.

I may have more thoughts later, but these are what come to mind right now.


Thank you. I love thought experiments and I love your perspective on this one. I agree. There are so many hurdles that it won’t ever be BIG in a general sense. So I was also asking, and many people answered this, what do you consider big. Which feeds into the whole subjectivity of big.

We have a lot to overcome but… Do we really need pinball to be as big as League of Legends? No we do not. The secret hipster in me, of philanthropist, wants to introduce pinball to the people who will enjoy it the most.

Last night I had some freinds overnight last night and they brought thier kids (7, 4, 2) and they were crazy over my machines. They loved Woz. But they also loves Williams Grand Prix and Time Warp. They couldn’t get enough. And my daughter did a great job teaching them about not shotgunning or double flipping. I was very proud.

So, compared to 8 years ago I’d say Pinball is big. Who would have thought Pinball would survive to 2016 and beyond? So for me its big. And pretty much just the right amount. So maybe the question is now… When will Pinball be big enough for you?


I wonder if the word “hipster” is also something we have differing opinions, on, because to me, a defining characteristic of a hipster is that they dislike anything that becomes popular–the more obscure and/or niche a thing is, the more they’re into it. Pretty often, the reason they like something in the first place is because they think it’s “ironic,” trying to look purposefully tasteless and dorky. The hipsters I’ve known would never introduce anything to anyone except their closest friends, and inevitably, with the exception of fixed-gear bicycles, they seem to move on to something else a few months later.

[quote=“agodfrey, post:10, topic:2250, full:true”]So, compared to 8 years ago I’d say Pinball is big. Who would have thought Pinball would survive to 2016 and beyond? So for me its big. And pretty much just the right amount. So maybe the question is now… When will Pinball be big enough for you?

Compared to 8 years ago, it is definitely bigger. But to me, it’s bigger in the sense that a guinea pig is bigger than a hamster. When it’ll be big enough for me to consider it “big,” I have no idea. You’re going to need sweeping changes to how pinball currently is (and to things that compete with pinball for people’s attention) for it to be big to me, because as it exists right now, it will remain niche.

Something else that came to mind: I was listening to some of Pinball News’s panels, and for the one for Spooky Pinball, when they suggested themes, someone suggested Rick & Morty, but it was turned down because it was too new. So I have to ask: Why is it bad that it’s too new? Would the licensing costs be too much? Because otherwise, that’d be a great way to get people interested in pinball. Strike while the iron is hot.

Currently, Stern’s the only one doing new themes, but only for movies and TV shows. The music-themed ones are decidedly 20 to 30 years behind. I understand they do this because fans of newer music likely won’t have the income needed to buy a home-use pinball machine, but a company aiming at public locations would probably be better off theming something with music from this current era, especially since we currently have a few bands that cultivate appearances for themselves, like Imagine Dragons.

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Well hipsters come in all stripes. I do want it to be special. And I meant to type more that the hipster in me wants to share, but only with people who will enjoy it the most. Thus keeping it kinda niche and special.

Good points though.

There is a thread on pinside, boo, ha, talking about the best era of Pinball and I have to agree with some people there that NOW is an amazing time because we have all these new machines PLUS all the old ones. Now for me I’m lucky to own the machines I do AND have some awesome venues (which I rarely get out so that’s not as a big deal). Great collectors around me, great shows and Pittsburgh only 2 hrs away. So for me I can get what I want with minimal effort.

I’m glad people are chiming in. So is pinball big enough then? Assuming we won’t benefit from BIG what’s big enough?


I’ll consider pinball big when after I’m done explaining to someone that I’m really into pinball, most will respond with “oh cool, I have a friend/loved-one/co-worker really into that in [name of city]”…

…instead of the current universal response: “I had no idea that was a thing”.


Maybe you just tell talk to all the wrong people. :grin:

Oh no, I have that as the most common response too! When I chat with someone I haven’t met before and they ask me what I’m into, whenever I reach pinball, it will most commonly be “I didn’t know it was a thing” either.

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I was joking. I’m just glad it’s sooo much better than 2008. It’s a good time to be in the hobby

Everybody is somebody’s hipster.

Big will suck because you will never get a seat for pinburgh finals and the top 10 will be some 22 year old guys we’ve never heard of yet.

I don’t know, the late 2000s were a great time for buying games. I miss sub 1k DMDs.

@TaylorVA who asked you!!! HAHA Well yeah. I agree my wallet hurts quite a bit. But hey…one day we’ll all be dead so…

When my conversation with a non-pinballer (in this case, one of my kid’s math teachers, at a parent-teacher conference) doesn’t lead to a response of: “Pinball? Aren’t those gambling devices?” I kid you not.