Date: 1st March, 2020

Introduction

The North American Championship Series (NACS) is one of the premier competitions in pinball today. Organized by the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), the NACS consists of year-long qualifying to determine the entrants into same-day finals across the continent. The results of those events determine the invitees for the IFPA North American Pinball Championship.

The NACS consists of the IFPA Provincial Championship Series (in Canada), the IFPA State Championship Series (in the USA), and the IFPA District Championship Series (specific to Washington D.C.). While anyone can qualify for any such series final, it is possible to only participate in one (part of the reason they are all held on the same day).

The various provincial/state/district series tournaments for the 2019 period were conducted on January 18, 2020. Such prestigious events offer a prime opportunity to better understand pinball game selection through the competitive lens. What makes for a good competitive game? Are there trends related to the games that are available for play in such events?

This article will tackle these questions in two distinct categories. First, it shall examine the games used by the championship series’ hosts (games that could be played by competitors) for some statistical details. Second, it will explore the question of prohibited games and modifications used to make gameplay more ideal for competitive purposes.

Statistical Review

There is no centralized repository of games used in the NACS. As such, self-reported data was required and not every location was represented in responses. Thirty-seven locations supplied their eligible game lists (out of fifty-five total) for a 67% response rate.

NACS Locations Whose Games Are Included

·    Alabama
·    Arizona
·    California
·    Colorado
·    Connecticut
·    Delaware
·    Florida
·    Idaho
·    Illinois
·    Indiana
·    Kansas
·    Kentucky
·    Maine
·    Maryland
·    Massachusetts
·    Michigan
·    Mississippi
·    Missouri
·    Nevada
·    New Brunswick
·    New Mexico
·    New York
·    North Carolina
·    Ohio
·    Oregon
·    Pennsylvania
·    Quebec
·    Rhode Island
·    Saskatchewan
·    South Carolina
·    Tennessee
·    Texas
·    Vermont
·    Virginia
·    Washington (state)
·    Washington, D.C.
·    West Virginia

These locations produced a list of 706 pinball machines available for play (attempts were made to not count games that were removed from consideration before the events began).

While it is not possible to confirm if these games statistically represent the locations that did not report (the sample size of locations is too small to make such a claim, and game choice can really vary depending on if the location is a public venue or a private collector), there is a lot of interesting information to be found given we have a majority of the locations reflected.

One of the biggest questions asked is whether the NACS is a ‘Sternament‘ (a play off the word tournament often used to signify that all, or most, of the pins in a competition are made by Stern Pinball, the current leading manufacturer of games).

The short answer is “No!” While Stern Pinball is the manufacturer of more NACS pins than any other, it is still well short of being the majority.

The split of manufacturers represented

As the Manufacturer Selection chart above shows, Stern Pinball leads with 31% of pins used for the NACS, followed by Bally with 26% and Williams with 21% (note that WMS games are broken down to either Bally or Williams depending on the label used, so these slices do include that period when the two companies were unified under WMS and the distinction became more academic than it was prior to 1988 when there was a true separation).

All other manufacturers were in single percentage values for game contribution. Gottlieb and Stern Electronics (aka classic Stern) were both at 5%, Jersey Jack with 4%, CGC (Chicago Gaming Company, which presently remakes WMS games) and Data East at 2%, and Spooky at 1%. Twenty-two games were listed with an ‘Other’ manufacturer (Sega, Capcom, Zaccaria, Chicago Coin, Playmatic, Dutch Pinball, American Pinball, Sonic, Multimorphic, and Heighway are all reflected in that category). Note that only 696 of the 706 pins are represented in the Manufacturer Selection chart, as some locations did not supply their manufacturer (this was an issue with certain WMS games and it not being known if they were WMS-built or CGC-built).

The top ten pins in the data are as follows:

Game (Count)

1. Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast (18)
2. Attack from Mars (17)
3. Jurassic Park – Stern (16)
4. Black Knight Sword of Rage (14)
5. Deadpool (13)
6. The Addams Family (12)
7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (11)
8. Metallica (10)
8. Ghostbusters (10)
10. Star Trek – Stern (9)
10. Monster Bash (9)
10. Game of Thrones (9)

So, out of the top ten list (consisting of twelve total games due to some ties), eight are Stern Pinball titles, all but three (to one, depending if the Attack from Mars and Monster Bash are the original WMS games or the CGC versions) are newer than 2012, and nothing pre-DMD makes the popularity cut.

When it comes to electromechanical (EM) versus solid-state (SS) pinball games, the NACS relies overwhelmingly on SS pins.

The split of electromechanical and solid-state games

There are no limitations on the use of EMs, but certain other factors (such as public venues for many of these locations) may just innately skew the game selection towards SS machines. Popularity of modern pinball to players is also a factor, especially given the growth amongst an audience too young to remember EM pinball machines on route.

Going back to Stern Pinball specifically, one of the big changes the company did over a decade ago was start issuing different models (namely the Pro/Premium/Limited Edition variety, but some others exist). Given the gameplay differences these sometimes entail, the differences between versions of a game can be dramatic when it comes to competitive play.

The different versions of Stern Pinball games used
LE in the chart equates to Limited Edition and SLE is short for Super Limited Edition

Based off what was reported (153 Stern Pinball games were designated with one of the chart labels used above), Pro units represent a significant majority of Stern Pinball games used in the NACS, followed by Premiums. Everything else only reflects about 15% of the total, and the bulk of that are Limited Edition models. Note that cases where a version was not reported, or the Stern Pinball game predated multiple versions, are not reflected in the above graph.

As such, NACS games skew towards modern pins, and the most common pins tend to be very modern games. Stern Pinball is the plurality manufacturer of choice but still is well short of a majority in overall game selection, though it dominates the top ten pins list.

Game Prohibitions and Modifications

Given the desire to eliminate inequitable gameplay elements from competitive play it is reasonable to wonder if the NACS has a list of banned games or other prohibitions. The answer is “No!

Josh Sharpe, President of the IFPA, noted that certain games clearly pose more of a problem than others, and while he would ensure a game like No Good Gofers (a game with multiple bugs that hurt its competitive worthiness, from unbalanced Cart Attack scoring to problems related to the free lock award) or Tales of the Arabian Nights (a game with a scoring imbalance tied to its Harem multi-ball and that permits highly skilled players to battle the genie for long periods of time) was never permitted at a circuit event or the World Championship, local events are not held to the same standard. In the case of Illinois and its State Championship Series, such games would be allowed in deference to the host of the event but it is seen as a borderline case (ideally the games would not be used but there is no willingness to actually prohibit them).

This philosophy seemed to carry over to the other locations, with games modified or removed for a variety of locally determined reasons. Several locations reported their logic used when arranging for their area’s NACS tournament.

For example, Tom MacArthur reported that New Brunswick’s host location had a Star Wars Episode 1 on site but it was removed from tournament use because the game awarded too many extra balls (and while they don’t play extra balls it became annoying to manage all of them). Adam Kiesler reported that in Quebec several games (OXO, Big Shot, and Spectrum) were played as one-player only games to avoid tilt-throughs and issues that could arise with player switching. Delaware reported that consideration is made regarding games with competitive issues. In their case Demolition Man was played with the ‘Soren’ custom ROM (‘Soren’ ROMs are customized ROM files made by Søren Worre, one of pinball’s most prolific ROM customizers whose work focuses on score balancing and bug fixes), and Stars was used with its center post intact and with a rubber ring.

Kevin Stone noted that Virginia used Rollergames with a custom ROM to address the random million-point shot (and if such a ROM was not available it would have been pulled from the competition).

Snow Galvin, in reporting Colorado’s game list, indicated all games that allowed lock-stealing were played as one-player games, and games which allowed tilt-throughs were played on Player 1 and Player 3 to protect against the issue. Colorado used short ball-save timers on all Jersey Jack and Stern Pinball games, all multi-ball ball-save timers were cut in half from default, rubbers were removed from multiple titles, and virtual ball-locks were activated for Aerosmith and Game of Thrones. Colorado also reported modifying Shrek so that the upper playfield was timed and that the up-post was disabled. ‘Soren’ ROMs were also used on three games (The Addams Family, The Getaway: High Speed II, and Mousin’ Around!).

Zoë Vrabel indicated that Oregon does not maintain a specific ban list but that she does pay attention to games bad for competition based off the PAPA (Professional & Amateur Pinball Association) Director’s Guide Game Notes. She also indicated Oregon avoids games with unbalanced mystery features, finicky mechanisms, known software bugs, and games with one-shot exploits that encourage repetitive play. Oregon does allow lock-stealing games to be played as intended so long as the lock-steal isn’t seen as overly unbalanced.

Colin MacAlpine reported the only game that was removed from the Texas venue’s tournament list was Police Force (both because of the ball three ‘take highest score’ feature and the instant multi-ball the mystery award can supply).

Stephen Thaxton indicated that no games needed to be banned for Mississippi, but they would not permit a score-swapping game such as Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Ball from ever being used.

Jeff Parsons reported Maine did not ban any games, but they did turn off extra balls and set games to the tournament mode wherever available.

Conclusion

The 2019 NACS game options were dominated by modern-era games. Stern Pinball is the most popular manufacturer for use at this point, but still well short of supplying the majority of pins in use. The IFPA has no ban mandates for games being involved in NACS, but many locations work to avoid poorly designed rules or mechanical features that may cause problems (many of these are programmed around via modified ROMs or addressable in software settings versus the need to full-on remove the game).

It will be interesting to see whether a consistent list of game prohibitions for NACS develops as competitive pinball’s popularity continues to grow or if the ad-hoc management by venue is enough to address any concerns.

Likewise, as modern pinball games continue to be sold and circulate throughout the hobby, will they continue to grow as a larger share of the available games played, or does a sort of firewall exist keeping classic and other older titles in as an important part of the mix?

Special thanks to Glenn Waechter for convincing me to write this article and for reaching out on Tilt Forums to help generate lists of NACS games. Special thanks to Josh Sharpe for reaching out to the state and provincial representatives to send in their game and banned lists. Finally, special thanks to the tournament directors and players who worked to provide details and made this article possible.

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