On a recent Monday night at downtown’s Eighteen Twenty Lounge, a Rockets game is playing on all four walls, “Dani California” is drowning out the commentary, and a nightly special for something called Hipster Juice is on offer, but none of that is responsible for the rowdy crowd. Instead, about 40 folks decked out in a mix of unbuttoned office attire and trucker hats are all huddled around the pinball machines—those flashing, beeping, blast-from-the-past anachronisms—arranged in an L formation by the doorway.
“Truthfully, it’s kind of blown up into this crazy thing,” explains Phil Grimaldi, the founder of Space City Pinball League, taking a break to speak with us. “We have a couple hundred players a year in our tournaments, and now we have these huge crowds for league nights.”
One of the top-ranked players in Texas himself, Grimaldi kickstarted the league in 2015, after he moved to Houston to take a postdoc job at Rice and found the local scene lacking. Meetups started at an arcade called The Game Preserve near The Woodlands, but now the operation has expanded here to Eighteen Twenty, as well as EinStein’s Pub out in Katy. Altogether the league counts more than 200 players; membership skews male, but there’s also an all-women subgroup called Belles & Chimes.
While Houston might be notable for this growing retro nerd obsession, it’s certainly not alone. Today the sport’s governing body—the International Flipper Pinball Association—counts nearly 37,000 ranked members worldwide, with regular local, state, national, and international tournaments attracting huge crowds both in person and streaming online. Purses aren’t as big as, say, eSports competitions for video gamers, with their millions in prize money, but top pinballers can still pull in thousands at a time.
Lots of Space City folks will tell you they’re here mostly for the beer and company, although, when pressed, many admit to owning multiple machines. Grimaldi, who has four in his townhouse, says he recently went to a party where one league member had a private collection of 50 games in a “standalone barn” in his backyard. With price tags sometimes reaching five digits, it’s not hard to draw a parallel between these enthusiasts and classic car fans—one player even described waxing the play surface of his pinball machines to optimize ball travel.
Yet the flashy hardware shouldn’t distract from the skill and athleticism involved in this sport. We watch as Grimaldi approaches the Iron Maiden machine, practically hugging it as he presses the side buttons to activate its flippers. Skilled players, he explains, use their body weight to tilt and jostle the machine, although they must be careful—sensors will dump the ball if you shake too hard. Grimaldi says he’s actually transferred a lot of lessons about ball control from his soccer days, and it shows as the metal sphere gracefully shoots toward targets and bumpers with perfect precision.
It’s a mental game, too, with plenty of strategy involved. “Unlike a video game, it’s not simulated physics—it’s real physics,” Grimaldi explains. “It’s much easier to get immersed in the action of the pinball and feel like you’re playing something real rather than something simulated, because when the ball is doing something crazy, it’s activating something in your brain in the neurons. I get really into that.”
Despite the game’s thoroughly analog nature, the kids are flocking to it, too—we observe a few gawky teens prowling the machines alongside people four times their age. Elizabeth Dronet, who collects machines, proudly tells us how her twin daughters now play the same games she and her husband loved during their days at McNeese State in Louisiana. “Rather than stay in their rooms, it forces us to be social,” she says, “and I think we really need that time being together.”
It’s all enough to positively floor seasoned gamers like Craig Squires, who saw pinball flourish in the ’80s, subsequently lose its luster in the wake of at-home console gaming, and, finally, make its current resurgence.
“I thought it was gone, but now it’s coming back,” he says. “It’s a whole new generation who are learning to love it. It’s such a fantastic sport.”
Space City Pinball meets regularly across Houston. For more information, visit spacecitypinball.com.