Published January 22, 2016
While it may seem quaint and nostalgic, pinball is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, driven, in part, by members of a generation raised on Xboxes and smartphones who have rediscovered the joys of a game that is not played on screens.
Pinball players in Western New York — with members of the UB community among them — are joining others across the country competing in tournaments for cash prizes and national rankings.
And also playing at home, just for the sheer fun of it.
Kevin Manne, assistant director of communications in the School of Management, is a founding member of the Buffalo Pinball League. Among the league’s purposes, he says, is to help grow pinball’s newfound popularity.
“Buffalo Pinball is a group devoted to reviving the pastime in the Buffalo area,” Manne says. “A few years ago you’d be lucky to find a dirty old machine in the corner of a laundromat. Now we’ve got regular tournaments and multiple leagues happening — the scene has come a long way.”
Manne says there’s a core group of gamers at UB who are among those bringing pinball back to life. “We are growing slowly but steadily,” he says.
Manne bought his first pinball machine around five years ago: a 1990 model, based on the short-lived roller derby TV show “Rollergames.”
These days his collection has grown to nine machines, filling his family’s game room with glowing images of the space shuttle, Gomez and Morticia Addams, the original Doctor Who, a Keanu Reeves version of Johnny Mnemonic, 3D images of Jeff Bridges in TRON and, yes, Dirty Harry.
“I think what is cool about pinball is that is brings together so many different people,” says Nick Lane, a corporate and foundation relations associate at UB and president of the Buffalo Pinball League. “A whole new generation that has never seen a pinball machine before is being exposed to pinball and they love it.
“Another factor in the game’s popularity now comes from the fact that many people who grew up with pinball during its peak in the 1990s have not seen the game for years because it has kind of disappeared. So, many of them, now well along in their careers, are going out and buying the games that they used to play in arcades for their homes.”
Lane points out that full-size, arcade-quality pinball machines are not inexpensive by any means.
“Market forces also apply to pinball. As the popularity of the game has risen, prices of the machines have gone up fast, with new ones going for anywhere from $5,900 to $8,000. But, ultimately this is good for the game, keeps it growing.”
Lane says finding the right space for the large machines in many homes can be a challenge. “Among the 10 pinball machines in my house are three that I am baby-sitting for someone. If you are a collector, when you find a good price on a machine that you have been searching for, you grab it.”
Jim Lemoine, an assistant professor in the School of Management and a pinball player, discovered the game at Louisiana State University.
“We had six at LSU when I was an undergrad. Addams Family and Twilight Zone were the big two I usually played. There was the World Cup soccer one, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Star Trek Next Generation and Fish Tales.
“Addams Family is the most popular pinball machine ever made — people familiar with pinball acknowledge it as kind of the gold standard (I have one at home that needs a little tuning up). At LSU I could play a single game on it for 45 minutes to around an hour. Great for a poor freshman!”
All three UB pinballers say they don’t see the game’s new rise in popularity slowing down anytime soon. They note that pinball’s appeal has changed from the days when rows of the machines filled now-vanished arcades.
“The things that happen during a pinball game put a smile on your face,” says Lane. “Pinball has evolved into a much more social event than an individual one. It appeals to everyone from kids to people who are in their eighties.”
And after a tough day at work, or maybe one just spent focusing on a computer screen?
“Pinball is a great stress-reliever,” Manne says.