- Associated Press - Friday, April 28, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - On a Monday evening in late February, 32 men and women crowded around the nine pinball machines at Lazer Lanes.

A small pinball tournament, called “Como Strikes V” was being held by the Columbia Pinball League, and some of the players had driven from St. Louis and Kansas City to participate.

Josh Noble, the group’s director, stood up to explain the games they’d play and the tournament rules. He ended his speech with a reminder:

“Just remember, we’re all friends here,” he said.

With that, Noble and his friends grabbed their tokens and started flipping the silver ball.

The Columbia Missourian (https://bit.ly/2pWIG1g ) reports that the Columbia Pinball League began in 2013 as a small cadre of players. Today, the group has between 16-20 regular members - and one of the 100 best pinball players in the world. Adam McKinnie is currently ranked among the top 50 in the United States.

In the last decade, pinball has seen a revival around the globe. More people are playing competitive pinball than ever before - the number of players ranked worldwide has increased by nearly 100 times in the last decade, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association.

Arcade bars have become a popular trend around the country, especially in major cities like Portland and Los Angeles. In Columbia, Lazer Lanes with nine machines is one of two arcades in Columbia - the other, called The Arcade, is located in the Columbia Mall. Pinball machines can also be found around town at Billiards on Broadway, Shakespeare’s Pizza and several bars.

A local business in south Columbia called The Pinball Company has seen sales more than double over the last decade. The company said The Pinball Company now sells roughly 300 pinball machines every year.

“Nostalgia is huge nowadays,” said Brooke Parks, the co-owner of the business, which was founded in 2006. “There’s just something really appealing about sitting down and playing pinball on a machine.”

The game of pinball is simple: Work the flippers at the bottom of the machine to keep the ball bouncing around various obstacles in the “play field” and score as many points as possible.

The amusement as we know it rose to popularity in the early 1930s, when companies began manufacturing countertop machines and selling them to bars and points of commerce.

Original versions of the game didn’t have flippers or bumpers - they were uncomplicated games where a player would plunge the ball onto the board hoping to strike a metal pin in just the right way, bounce into a hole and earn points.

Pinball hit a snag in the 1940s when it was considered a game of chance, thus falling under the umbrella of gambling. It led a number of major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City to ban the game.

Then in 1976, a pinball enthusiast named Roger Sharpe testified before the New York City Council by playing the game. He called many of his shots before he made them, proving that pinball was, in fact, a game of skill.

The council lifted the ban, and Sharpe was hailed as “the man who saved pinball.”

The modern version of the game temporarily returned to popularity during the 1980s and early ‘90s, before video games pushed it into the background.

Then around 2009, popularity spiked again. Josh Sharpe, the president of the International Flipper Pinball Association and the son of “the man who saved pinball,” attributes the surge to a culture craving nostalgia, as well as the irreplaceable, physical gameplay it offers.

In the last 10 years the number of ranked players has grown from around 500 to over 48,000, and the number of worldwide events hit 3,500 last year, up from 52, according to the pinball association.

If you’ve had trouble beating the high scores on pinball machines at Shakespeare’s Pizza or Billiards on Broadway, Adam McKinnie is likely to blame.

Born in Kansas City, the 42-year-old McKinnie lives in Columbia and works as chief utility economist at the Missouri Public Service Commission. During his off hours, he is a pinball wizard, ranked No. 45 among pinball players in the United States, and the No. 70 in the world, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association.

“I like to fluctuate anywhere from 54th to 65th,” he said. “My real goal, though, is to keep myself in the top 100.”

McKinnie said he lives with autism spectrum disorder and often feels a lack of control when handling social situations. With pinball, he knows exactly what to do and how to do it.

He is methodical in his approach to the game. Instead of flipping the silver ball whenever he gets a chance, he’ll stop briefly to plan his strategy, searching for a better position to aim his next shot.

“It’s kind of how football teams will pick out their first 20 plays before they run,” he said. “In pinball, on a lot of the machines, I know the first 10 shots I’m going to make if everything goes well.”

McKinnie has been playing the game since he was 2, starting on his grandfather’s pinball machine, which had no flippers and required him to shake the machine to keep his ball in play.

As a student at the University of Illinois, he gravitated to a competitive pinball league started by Josh Sharpe.

“I think roughly nine people showed up on our first night, and Adam was one of them,” Sharpe said.

As McKinnie immersed himself in the game, he started competing around the country with Sharpe, honing his skills as a player. He was a world-ranked player by the time he was 29.

“He’s actually one of the nicest guys,” said Nathan Goett, a league player and a technician at The Pinball Company. “He’s never cocky. He actually wants people to do really well and beat him.”

When the Columbia Pinball League began in the fall of 2013, players gathered at Gunther’s Games, a downtown video arcade that closed in 2015.

Its founders were Columbia natives McKinnie and Robert Ryan, who wanted to find a place in town where they could play competitively instead of driving long distances to participate in tournaments.

McKinnie said Gunther’s was the ideal location for a fledgling pinball league to settle.

“We were so lucky at Gunther’s,” he said. “We had the keys to the machines, so we could clean them, fix them and update them. It was a great environment.”

The league grew over time, bringing at least 30 players every week to Gunther’s to compete. But in May 2015, the owner announced that he could no longer run the business, couldn’t find an adequate replacement, and would close the arcade. The league was faced with the task of finding a new home.

“We were definitely worried about it,” McKinnie said. “But we were really fortunate that Lazer Lanes had opened and was actively recruiting us to come out and do events there.”

When the league reassembled at Lazer Lanes in south Columbia, the move from downtown caused attendance to drop. But over the last 18 months, president Josh Noble said, attendance has slowly revived. The group’s Facebook page now lists more than 70 members, with about 20 regular players showing up every Monday night.

The league plays in four “seasons,” according to Noble. A tournament-style bracket is set up every Monday to award points to first, second and third places. At the end of every season, points are tallied and a winner is declared.

Yet, Noble said, more than anything else, the group assembles to have a good time.

“These are the kind of people you would hang out with in high school,” he said. “Everyone’s awesome, and this is all about having fun with one another.”

Brooke Parks and her husband started The Pinball Company in 2006 with modest success. Two years later, the 2008 recession hit, and they began to see a noticeable dip in sales.

“Things impacted us,” she said. “During that time, we were concerned that pinball could be done.”

Parks was mistaken. As the recession waned in 2009, the company began to see signs of recovery. Major manufacturers like Stern Pinball and Jersey Jack were producing new state-of-the-art games, and people were buying.

Parks credits this to the fact that upper-class, middle-aged Americans who played the game during the ‘80s and ‘90s had a desire not only to play the game, but to outfit their homes with game rooms.

“It was definitely a niche, but they were buying up machines,” she said.

Today, The Pinball Company sells hundreds of pinball machines, along with other popular video arcade games. Recently, the company introduced a pinball game of its own design, themed around the popular 1960s cartoon, “The Jetsons.”

Goett, one of the company’s pinball technicians, teamed up with his father, Dan, two years ago to build a game that would appeal to families.

“The new games coming out around then were Metallica, AC/DC and The Walking Dead-themed, which aren’t very family-friendly,” Goett said. “We wanted to make a game that was fun for everyone.”

The game is expected to be available within the next few weeks.


Information from: Columbia Missourian, https://www.columbiamissourian.com

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