Man vs. machine: Playland Pinball Tournament organizers hope if they build it, you will come

Tim Sexton plays pinball at Chronic Town. He is one of the Playland Pinball Tournament organizers.
Tim Sexton plays pinball at Chronic Town. He is one of the Playland Pinball Tournament organizers. CDT photo

The coins will drop and the flippers will fly Oct. 4, with the Playland Pinball Tournament. Named as a tribute to the iconic Playland Arcade that closed in 2003 after serving State College for 35 years, this International Flipper Pinball Association-sanctioned event looks to make a dent in the world pinball rankings and perhaps even re-ignite the pinball scene in Centre County.

“Central Pennsylvania hasn’t had any competitive pinball events since the 1990s, when the arcade business was at its peak,” said Tim Sexton, a computer science major at Penn State from Exton.

In addition to participating, he will serve as the tournament director. “The arcade business model crashed and burned as the market changed toward the end of the ’90s, and pinball retreated to homes and private collections. It is just in the last three years that a trend of growth and revival has emerged.”

“Pittsburgh has the best pinball scene in the world right now, and Philadelphia is starting to really thrive, but the middle of the state doesn’t have anything yet,” Sexton said. “One of my goals for this event is to generate enough local interest ... for a league or more tournaments to continue here in the area. I’ve seen the scene grow in New York City and in the greater Philadelphia area in just this past year, and I know that there is a lot of potential for pinball’s comeback.”

“I think there is a small but growing pinball scene in State College, fueled by places like Chronic Town learning to integrate pinball into part of their business, and by hobbyists and collectors who are interested in supporting it,” said State College resident, tournament organizer and pinball enthusiast Joe Schall. “On a larger scale, the pinball scene is certainly burgeoning. There’s a spring pinball show in Allentown, a fall show in York, two national tournaments a year in Carnegie, new arcades that have opened in places like Linfield and Downingtown, and next year a national pinball museum is scheduled to open in Pittsburgh.”

Currently the 978th ranked player in the world out of close to 19,000, Sexton said he thinks that the pinball resurgence has to do with that age-old battle against the tyranny of technology.

“I think there’s something special with the ‘man vs. machine’ dynamic that goes on when someone plays a pinball game,” Sexton said. “The beginner is fighting with gravity just to keep the ball in play, and when they manage to hit a shot, the machine starts screaming ‘Jackpot,’ lights up and plays all kinds of crazy music. The player sees that, feels great and starts to wonder how they can control that. Then the game starts to become something they can begin to understand and control. The game remains fun as long as it’s hard and as long as the payoff of hitting the right shot still feels great.”

“Because pinball has such a long and rich history, spanning the last century, it has an appeal across generations,” Schall added. “There are thousands of different titles in existence, which leads to an endless opportunity for discovery. All it takes is a good experience with one specific title for someone to get hooked.”

While obviously not as physical as some contact sports, the participants in your typical pinball tournament are just as serious and passionate about their games.

“Most of the time, the tournaments are very friendly, even when competition gets heated,” Sexton said. “These tournaments are usually very social events and players are interested in meeting others and discussing different things that pertain to the hobby.”

“There’s both an endurance factor and a personal intensity factor that’s relevant whenever you’re playing any one game,” Schall said. “No matter how good a player you are, you might literally have a ball that lasts 10 minutes, followed by one that lasts 10 seconds, so you have to learn to play relaxed and keep your cool.”

Even though the Playland Pinball Tournament is in its infancy, all signs point to this event being the ground zero for the rebirth of pinballing in State College. The flashing lights, cheering crowds and chiming bells of victory emanating from the glowing pinball machine are sure to harken back to the glory days of yesteryear when packed arcades palaces reigned supreme.

“One of the main reasons I am doing this is because I want to play pinball and in my experience the game is most enjoyable in a social setting,” Sexton said.

“I can play for a high score at an arcade, but the game of pinball really thrives for me when there is the pressure of the head-to-head tournament. If you come to the tournament, you’ll have an absolute blast. I’m really hoping that the ‘If you build it, they will come’ thing holds up.”