Players from all over the world attempted to plunge, nudge and flip their way to the top of the competitive pinball world as the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association’s (PAPA) World Pinball Championship — or the “holy grail of pinball,” as one top player from the UK Rich Mallet calls it— returned to Carnegie.
The 20th Professional and Amateur Pinball Association World Championship took place April 5-9. The Championship attracts pinball players of all skill levels, from the highest-ranking players in the world to casual spectators and those who just enjoy playing the game with friends. Up for grabs is $37 thousand worth of cash prizes and one of the highest honors in the sport —the PAPA World Champion of Pinball.
The Replay Foundation, a non-profit organization that operates PAPA, has held this event at their headquarters in Carnegie since 2004. According to the PAPA website, it is the “most competitive pinball event held anywhere in the world, bringing more than a thousand players and spectators.”
The PAPA facility features over 450 pinball machines dating from the 1930s all the way to as recent as machines from 2016, and with more than three quarters of a century of history located within, it is not only a competition venue, but a living and breathing museum.
From the moment you park it’s apparent that this is no average arcade — attendees were tailgating, listening to music and catching up with each other about the latest happenings in the pinball world. As you walk into what used to be just another warehouse, you can see a crowded venue with the sounds and flashing LEDs of hundreds of freshly waxed machines.
The majority of the space is filled with various machines that are on free play and available to any attendee and just about everyone is willing to play a friendly game with you. At 10 a.m., the competition begins. The concentration and intentness of the players is palpable and spreads across the roped off, competitor-only area. The serious attitudes of many of the players serves as a reminder to spectators who may have previously viewed pinball as only being a recreational, noncompetitive activity that the players at this ultra-competitive event are here to win.
The main tournament has four divisions – A, B, C, D. World rankings based on the International Flipper and Pinball Association (IFPA) data are utilized to help ensure players spots in their appropriate division. For example, players ranked between 1 – 199 in the world are restricted to Division A. According to the PAPA 20 website, Division A is “the most renowned event in all of competitive pinball.” The champion of this division will walk away with not only $7 thousand, but also as world champion in pinball.
This year, a 13-year-old pinball player named Escher Lefkoff (#76 IFPA) became the new PAPA World Pinball Champion. Lefkoff hails from Colorado and said “[winning] was a dream come true.”
After this hard-fought championship, Lefkoff will soon be ranked among the 40 best pinball players in the world overall. He has competed in over 50 pinball tournaments, setting the standard for the future of the sport. In a lighthearted moment during the celebration, it was revealed that Lefkoff’s father promised him his very own ice cream truck if he came away with the championship, topping the week full of victory off with something just as sweet.
“I won in a tie breaker against the second-best pinball player in the world,” Lefkoff said after the final round on the classic pinball game Skateball against Bowen Kerins. Kerins is a three time PAPA World Champion and knows just about every pinball game you could possibly find in any tournament setting because of the number of pinball tutorials he has produced for the pinball community.
“You want your mind to be as clear as possible, like an NBA player shooting a free throw with the game on the line,” Kerins told The Pitt Maverick after the tiebreaker. “It’s not a very complicated strategy on [Skateball] but you just have to execute. Turns out I did not.”
The level of respect and sportsmanship from all of the Division A finalists was apparent to the spectators when the tiebreaker was over and players moved in to congratulate Lefkoff.
“It’s a great story,” says Doug Polka, the director of competition for the event. “[It’s] great to see someone that young rise to the top of the sport.”
With three of this year’s division champions being minors, this year was a year of the young pinball player.
Aleksander Kaczmarczyk (#61 IFPA) is one of the young pinball players. He began competing at the age of 12, and at 14 is now one of the top 100 players in the world. As a competitor in Division A of this year’s championship, Kaczmarczyk is up against players that are far older and have far more experience with the game. Confidently, the young competitor stated that he’s “not intimidated by the competition.” Judging by their near sweep this year, it’s safe to say that the feeling is mutual for the youngest members of the competition.
The World Championship boasts a few other tournaments as well, like the classics tournament, featuring machines that were built prior to 1990. In addition, there is also the juniors, seniors and women’s tournaments, and a unique split flipper tournament where you play in sets of two and each partner can only control one flipper.
Behind the scenes are many volunteers and staff members who are needed to ensure this event runs smoothly. Scorekeepers, officials, and pinball technicians are among this group.
Pinball technician Dan Hall and his peers had a vital job in this competition. His job is “keeping the machines from setting themselves on fire,” he told The Pitt Maverick. The sheer volume of back-to-back games being played on these machines can be staggering for spectators. Depending on the day, it amounts to 11 to 18 hours of straight gameplay on any given machine, meaning plenty of work to go around for the technicians.
In competition or qualifying rounds, if a player feels that a game is malfunctioning, players are to call for the help from an official. If it was determined that the game was malfunctioning, a technician arrives. Armed with an entire cart of tools, they get to work. With all the action going on around these technicians and the sense of urgency they have, one can’t help but think of a NASCAR tire change.
PAPA 20 had elements of a retailer expo, with the newest games brought in and made available to play and try out. The famous pinball manufacturer, Jersey Jack, brought out their newest game, Dialed In! The machine is an original concept, set around a city in which disasters and attacks are occurring left and right. With a built in “smart phone” that you must charge by hitting a moving target, you can dial in contacts that can help you unlock abilities within the game and solve the disasters.
This game sets itself apart from many modern machines from other manufacturers by having the increasingly rare distinction of not being based upon an existing property or franchise. Additionally, Dialed In! features a 27-inch LCD screen, Bluetooth connectivity, a camera, and a holographic glass screen, technology that hasn’t been seen until relatively recently in machines.
When asked for a final thought on the week, Doug Polka gave a shout out to the community – “Thank you to everybody who helps us out.” Continuing he said, “There are a ton of people who help this run smoothly and not enough of them get the credit they deserve.”
After the hard fought and taxing week at his 20th straight PAPA World Pinball Championship, Kerins wanted to emphasize that “the people who run these events, run the best events in the entire world, and I am excited to see what happens next. I will definitely be there.”