It’s a Thursday night in Seattle’s trendy Fremont neighbourhood. Inside Add-A-Ball Amusements, women, nonbinary and trans competitors are hunched over the blinking lights and ringing chimes of new and vintage pinball machines.
It’s the monthly meet-up for Babes in Pinland, where players give their all — both playing the games and dressing up to the month’s costume theme. There’s a cash prize on the line, plus “whopper points” (World Pinball Player Rankings), so the mood is serious. But not so serious that competitors lob insults or dirty looks — quite the opposite in fact, when the tournament pauses between rounds for a group photo.
Pinball is having a renaissance, and many of its best players and key tournaments are on the West Coast.
How can an arcade game grow such a passionate sub-culture? It requires two skillsets — the physics of manoeuvring the ball on the playfield, plus the gaming knowledge of what shots to hit when — so if you want to fall down the rabbit hole, you can dive pretty deep.
It’s lively and loud, key for engaging the sleep-deprived after-work crowd. It encourages socialization without being too intimidating. It’s a game of both chance and skill, meaning that even the best players sometimes drain their ball right off the plunge, so even beginners have a hope of winning.
I got into pinball thanks to Victoria’s Karrie Hill, who hosts pinball leagues and tournaments at her restaurant, Deadbeetz Burgers. In that league, Hill consistently ranks in the top four, while I’m fighting for eighth or tenth.
Down in Seattle, the competition is a little stiffer. Women there have been playing for decades, practice on machines in their homes, and play in multiple tournaments every week. In the three competitions I entered over a weekend of South Sound Pinball at Add-A-Ball and the nearby Ice Box Arcade, I finished in the bottom half in all of them. As they say, “That’s pinball, baby.”
So finding stiffer competition is one of the reasons Hill travels to play. Every city has its own pinball culture, and its own mix of rare and vintage games. She’s talked pinball with millionaire collectors and celebrity Twitch streamers, and played her share of one-of-a-kind machines you have to travel to see.
As vacations go, pinball tournaments are a complete escape — it’s nearly impossible to think about work and home stress when you’re immersed in a three-strikes knock-out tournament, scrambling to start your Frankenstein multi-ball.
Want to see what all the fuss is about? Here are a few of the best places to play pinball along the West Coast:
- INDISC (It Never Drains in Southern California): A well-run annual tournament that attracts many of the world’s best players.
- AYCE Gogi: At both of this restaurant’s LA locations, serving up Korean BBQ and a great selection of pinball games.
- Next Level Pinball Museum: One of the world’s largest arcades with over 475 games set to ‘free play.’ Pay a flat rate admission fee to enjoy unlimited pinball for the day.
- Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show: An annual tournament and expo featuring custom, one-of-a-kind games built by amateur enthusiasts, plus other rarities.
- Northwest Pinball Championships: Held every year at the Lynnwood Bowl & Skate, when you’re not competing against the PNW’s best, you can rent rollerskates for a lap around the rink.
- Vancouver Island Pinball Expo: The inaugural VIPE took place in 2023, a competition-packed weekend that also offered a selection of free play games.
- YEGPIN: An annual tournament and expo with more than 30,000 square feet of pinball.
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