Date: 22nd March, 2012
In just a few days' time, one of the largest pinball tournaments in the world opens its doors to competitors at the start of three days of near-continuous competitive pinball.
With more than 230 players already pre-registered, 2012 is shaping up to be the most popular Pinburgh since it began in 1998. In addition, Pinburgh is the first event in the new PAPA Circuit of ten specially-selected tournaments, leading to a final held the day before next year's Pinburgh.
Pinburgh started out as the annual tournament of the Steel City Pinball Association, playing at a Pittsburgh University assembly room, but is now run by the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) out of their impressive facility in Scott Township, near Pittsburgh.
However, a tournament this big doesn't run itself. The competitors need to be registered, the payments taken, the website created, the format agreed, the staffing arranged, the T-shirts printed, and much more besides. And that's without even considering the preparation of the 450 machines used for both competitive and casual play over the three days.
Heading up the tournament is former World Champion, Bowen Kerins. He developed the matchplay format for the event and is the Tournament Director at Pinburgh, making sure everything runs smoothly and adjudicating whenever a ruling is needed.
Bowen spoke to Pinball News about this year's Pinburgh, how he came to be running it, and all the behind-the-scenes activity which takes place in the days and weeks before the first competitors arrive.
Pinburgh's history goes back to 1998. When did you first play in it, and how did you do?
Bowen: I played in Pinburgh 1999, held at the Beehive Coffeehouse near the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. It was my first-ever trip to Pittsburgh and the city was a lot cooler than I expected.
The games were on a stage just in front of a movie screen, and the tournament shut down at night to show movies! It was a fun, social weekend. I finished third to Trent Augenstein and Kevin Martin.
Kevin liked the tournament so much, he bought the company! He offered to help run Pinburgh 2000 and it began to snowball: the event was moved to a hotel, the qualifying system was made more intense, the prizes grew. Pinburgh quickly became the best pinball tournament held in the U.S. since Steve Epstein stopped running the PAPA World Championships in 1997.
In 2004 there was a remarkable change; Kevin re-organized PAPA and converted Pinburgh - in name, but also in scale - into the PAPA 7 championship.
Bowen: When Kevin opened PAPA he built an enormous warehouse of pinball machines, over 400 games, only opening it for PAPA. I suggested that Kevin should run a large match-play tournament at PAPA.
He said "no", and kept saying "no" until I started offering to run such a tournament.
I volunteered and ran a one-day match-play charity tournament in 2009 and 2010. Those were fun, but short. I continued to pitch a larger event.
In fall 2010 we started preparing for this new tournament to be held in March 2011. When it came time to name the thing, "Pinburgh" just seemed right. I think the spirit of the original Pinburgh is there: a fun, social weekend of playing pinball and maybe winning some prizes.
Bowen: It doesn't, and there is no way Pinburgh would happen without local support from PAPA staff, and support at home from my family.
I disappear for a few weekends a year to play pinball, and now I disappear for even longer NOT to play pinball? I'm grateful to my wife that she would say yes to that!
Bowen: I cannot compete. PAPA rules exclude tournament directors and organizers from competing.
Last year as Tournament Director I was interviewed for a popular YouTube channel and we joked about the possibility that at the end, he would come back to interview me again as the champion. That won't happen.
I don't work with PAPA as they organize their August championship, because it's the only way I can play in it.
Bowen: I have an easier time of things than I should, living in Boston while the other guys work hard at PAPA HQ.
Mark Steinman deals with most of the arrangements, including fixing and moving machines into place, local publicity, finding and arranging trophies, and far too much else. He has filmed somewhere between 100 and 200 of the gameplay videos seen at pinball.org, edits them all, and takes high-quality pictures of each game's playfield and rule card.
Kevin Martin handles everything computerized, from the registration system to the scoring and updating of each round, and Pinburgh could not run without this expertise.
I handle some of the rules and format decisions, and am grateful for the advice and feedback I receive from many other players. I also handle machine selection and the all-important naming of the game groups.
During the tournament, Mark and I make sure the tournament runs on time. We handle malfunctions and other issues that crop up.
PAPA also has an amazing staff of technicians, both the crew who fix and tune the games before their events, and those who wander around putting out fires - hopefully not literally - as the event goes on.
When do get to PAPA HQ to start setting things up, what's the first thing you do when you get there?
Bowen: Setup has been happening on and off for several months. When I arrive on Tuesday (the tournament starts Friday) most of my role will be a final play-test of all the games. That sounds like a lot of fun... and it is... but there are 180 games to play-test. I estimate that I will spend 24 hours play-testing games between Tuesday and Friday.
Pinburgh uses more pinball machines than any pinball tournament ever has. All 180 games will be played in every round. It's our job to make the event fun and fair to all, and we'll do our best to make it that way.
Bowen: As of this writing we have 230 players for a prize pool of $24,500, both the largest ever for a match-play tournament, and it's growing daily.
The field is grouped into fours, and each group is assigned to one of 45 themed machine sets that include one electromechanical pin, one solid state pin, one dot-matrix pin, and one that could be late solid-state or early dot-matrix.
For example, one machine set is Iron Man, Prospector, Goldeneye, and Xenon, a group called "Miner Inconvenience".
The group of four players plays each of the four games back-to-back and tracks their win-loss record. A perfect round is 12-0, and we're giving a money bonus to anyone who pulls it off.
At the end of each round, the entire field is reshuffled and reassigned to new groups and new machine sets. No one is eliminated until after the 10th round, so all players will get 40 games of competitive pinball no matter how well or poorly they do.
Bowen: The new Pinburgh was built for match-play, and my goal was to make a tournament that was as much fun for the champion as it was for the lowest-performing players.
Top players pretty much always have a good time at tournaments, but casual players get the short end of the stick with quick eliminations.
At many events, casual players don't get to play against anyone else, and that is an important thing overlooked - meeting and learning from others is the best way to get better at pinball, and if we want to grow tournaments, we need new players to have a fantastic time so they will come back and bring their friends!
This is also a luxury we have using the PAPA site and its huge stock of games. There is no way we could run this tournament with a small number of pinball machines, and there is no way we could run this tournament without a large facility to keep everyone happy, fed, and sane. Players at Pinburgh know they can put down one entry fee of $100, play all day Friday and Saturday, then have a chance at winning some cash on Sunday no matter what.
Bowen: The tournament is built for all levels of play. There are A, B, and C Divisions, but these are assigned to players at the end of the first day based on their performance.
Strong performers play A, mid-level performers play B, and poor performers play C.
The second day has the same format but all play is within the division, and the poor first-day records in C Division are wiped away. The top 24 (of roughly 80) in each division will advance to finals on Sunday for cash prizes, and all other players are eligible for a consolation double-elimination tournament.
One of the things I really like about the format is that a player can "play up" into any division, instead of having to pick between A, B, or C from the start. One of last year's A finalists considered himself a C player until he started beating everyone...!
No matter who you are, you're guaranteed a whole lot of pinball play.
Games are set for coin drop, and the coin drop benefits the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. Players at Pinburgh 2011 donated over $12,000 through their coin drop. We expect that number to grow significantly, and we're already more than halfway there through pre-registration token purchases.
Bowen: Yes. Advance registration is required, but the registration is still open. The design of the tournament can accommodate well over 300 players.
Another thing to mention is that the PAPA site is open to the public on these days for coin play, so people who aren't interested in playing a full tournament can still come out. While 180 of PAPA's games will be set aside for the tournament, that still leaves nearly 300 other pinball machines available to play, from the 1950s to today.
It's an overwhelmingly great place to play pinball, and I am grateful to PAPA for giving me the opportunity to host a tournament at their site.
For those of you who enjoy watching as well as playing competitive pinball, the PAPA blog Shoot Here and Here contains numerous overhead videos of tournament games from both Pinburgh and the PAPA World Championships.
Meanwhile, at the start of this article we noted how Pinburgh 2012 marks the start of the PAPA Circuit which aims to boost awareness of pinball and increase participation in competitive events, as well as reward the best overall players.
PAPA has done this by selecting ten events and supporting them by boosting their prize funds by $1,500 each, as well as offering organisational advice and support.
In addition, the top 24 players in each Circuit tournament earn points towards an end-of-season final held the day before next year's Pinburgh. The twenty players with the most PAPA Circuit points are invited to the final, along with any other winners of events who failed to qualify on points. Entry is free for those who qualify, while the eventual winner will take home a minimum of $2,500 in addition to a trophy and the title of PAPA Circuit Player of the Year.
Pinball News spoke to PAPA's Mark Steinman to find out more about the Circuit, how the concept evolved, what it means for tournament organisers and players, and where the Circuit goes from here.
Mark: PAPA is constantly looking for ways to promote pinball and encourage new players. The PAPA Circuit is a natural extension of that idea.
We already run the PAPA World Championships and Pinburgh, and both are wide-reaching, successful events with large payouts, but now the Circuit gives us even more opportunities to help the community and get more involved beyond our own facility.
Mark: We hope that more people become interested in pinball!
Our goal as an organization is not complicated. As you know, pinball is a diverse game that offers so many different ways a person can be entertained, learn a new skill, or become interested in the art or science behind how the games work. If our outreach leads to bigger and better tournaments around the country, and that in turn generates more interest in this great game, the PAPA Circuit has served its purpose.
Outside of the Circuit, PAPA donates large sums of money to a number of worthy causes, both directly related to pinball and sometimes not, so we're no strangers to philanthropic gestures. The bottom line, however, is every single day I sit down and ask myself how I can help pinball, and the creation of the PAPA Circuit is one more way to do exactly that.
Mark: For the first year, the events were mostly chosen by acquiring player feedback. We talked to players about where they enjoyed competing and narrowed our list from there.
In the future, the list of events will rotate and grow. We're constantly talking to other players, working with event organizers to see how we can help, and receiving feedback.
Mark: We require that the event organizers pay out all additional money to the players, but being a part of the PAPA Circuit is about more than receiving a check. We also will help with advertising, flyers, signs, setting up, making rulings, bringing games if necessary and feasible from our own collection, filming and editing the competition, and any number of other things required to help assure the smooth running of an event.
The money is a very generous donation for the players, but it is by no means the end of what we're offering. In some instances, we are willing to completely run the tournament from start to finish.
Mark: My advice for all tournament organizers is listen to your players. Feedback from competitors will always be the number one thing that will turn our eyes in a particular direction. Frequently this means all, or at the very least a high percentage, of money must go back to the players in the form of prizes or money.
Also, the finals of a tournament should do justice to the qualification time and effort, and don't use unusual seeding or tournament formats.
Mark: The current plan is to expand both within and beyond the United States. Whether the European expansion happens in our second year is yet to be seen, but it is something we're discussing internally.
The challenges of expanding into Europe are obvious, but we are hoping the players overseas contact us to let us know which events should be considered and are willing to help with some of the logistical issues.
If there are any European players out there, send us your opinions and feedback!
Not all ten of the Circuit events have confirmed their dates yet, but as soon as they do we'll add them in.
© Pinball News 2012