Pinball leagues and Michigan expo demonstrate game’s resurgence

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published March 16, 2015

ROCHESTER — After years of fading into the background, the sounds of bells, whistles, digitized music and flippers hitting pinballs are coming back.


That old arcade mainstay has seen breaths of new life during the past few years, and enthusiasts around metro Detroit are helping put pinball machines back into the spotlight with local leagues running throughout the year, and a four-day annual event — the Michigan Pinball Expo — scheduled for April.


Parker Thomas runs three pinball leagues in the metro Detroit area. The first — and oldest — is known as Marvin’s Pinball League and meets at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills. Another league meets at The Arcade in Brighton, and the newest one has started at the M-Brew bar and restaurant in Ferndale.


Thomas said the leagues mostly are for fun, and outside of handing out trophies in the finals of each season, there are no real prizes or money involved in the monthly meets. The only cost, he said, is the money to play the games.


“The main idea is that everyone gets together with other people who play pinball or remember playing pinball,” Thomas said. “It’s geared toward all skill levels. You don’t have to be a great player to play in them.”


Due to Michigan having top-notch pinball players, Thomas said, the leagues are split into skill divisions. They also involve putting people into groups of four, with the members rotating what game they want to play. The standings are marked down after they have finished on a machine.


Marvin’s league tends to draw around 20 players — good for the limited physical space, Thomas said — while The Arcade brings in closer to 40-45 people. M-Brew’s first league period drew about 25 players.


Thomas said he started playing pinball as a kid back on the boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland, and he continued playing into his adult life. He is a member of the exclusive Detroit Pinball League, a group of enthusiasts and collectors who meet at each others’ homes to play their personal games.


Thomas wanted to do something to bring more people interested in pinball together to play and hang out in a public setting, which led to him starting the Marvin’s league a few years ago.


“(Pinball) kind of went downhill for a while,” Thomas said. “There wasn’t much going on, but the last few years, it’s made a resurgence, so there’s a lot of people saying they needed a place to play pinball.”


The Michigan Pinball Expo, now in its sixth year, is another popular option for pinball players to test their skills. Scheduled for April 9-12 at Oakland University in Rochester, organizer John Kosmal said the expo should see around 125-150 machines set to free play, with tournaments for players of all skill levels.


He said he started it after seeing pinball shows across the United States and thinking that he could do a better job of putting one together.


“I started it all in 2010, and it’s just been drawing every year,” Kosmal said. “It’s got a loyal family. Pinball’s making a big comeback, and people enjoy playing it, (so) it’s a big family event — we got a lot of families introducing people to pinball every year.


“You go up to a lot of the kids, and they don’t even know what it is. They’ll check it out if the theme is (something like) ‘Wizard of Oz’ or ‘The Hobbit,’ and they’ll take it on and enjoy it.”


Unlike a video game, he said, the ball in a pinball game tends to be “wild,” leading to a game where anything can happen. A video game, Kosmal said, can only do what it’s programmed and patterned to do.


The expo is scheduled to feature guest speakers, including one from Jersey Jack Pinball, which is one of the two major companies manufacturing the games. The expo will feature two new pinball machines, Kosmal said: Jersey Jack’s “The Hobbit” and Stern Pinball’s “WWE Wrestlemania.”


Collectors provide most of the machines at the expo, Kosmal said, as they want to see people play their games and enjoy themselves. This sets the pastime apart from other collecting crowds, he said.


“Car collecting is great — you have a shiny car, but you (as a spectator) don’t know if it runs, if it is fast; you can see how it is (technically), but you can’t drive it,” Kosmal said. “With pinball machines, it’s ‘jump on, try it out, and if you enjoy it, that’s great, thanks!’”


The event will feature multiple pinball tournaments, including the Pinbrawl team tournament, a children’s tournament and others. Several tournaments, including Pinbrawl, are designed around different skill levels, so players will compete against others who are of the same skill level.


“You play against your peers, so you’re not some weekend golfer playing against Tiger Woods,” Kosmal said. “We don’t want a newbie player playing against a pinball wizard.”


The expo runs from 9 a.m.-11 p.m. April 9-11, and from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. April 12. An all-day pass — allowing entry and exit throughout the day — is $20 at the door for adults or $15 for students and kids ages 4-15. People can preorder tickets with a $2.50 discount online at www.mipinball.com.


Kosmal said he is starting a pinball league of his own at the Avon North Hill Lanes bowling alley in Rochester, which will feature 30 of his own machines ranging from the 1950s to the present day. He said his league will reset every month, so interested players who can’t make it every time will not have to worry about long-running standings.


For more information on the local pinball leagues, Thomas said, people can look them up on Facebook — under M-Brew Pinball League, Marvin’s Pinball League and The Arcade Pinball League, respectively — or people can get on the mailing list by emailing parker@michiganpinball.com.