Two eyes on a steel ball: how well-funded enthusiasts created a way to help keep pinball alive
Pinball is a sport in the same way that poker is a sport: It’s only based on luck if you’re terrible at it. Pinball is a wonderfully physical activity that combines hand-eye coordination, strategy, and the correct application of force. There is nothing like it, and fans of pinball often drive for hours to find their favorite table, if they don’t buy one for their basement. Bowen Kerins is one such enthusiast, and the video below shows his talent. It's hard to catch if you don't know what to look for, but he's able to actually bump a ball back out of a gutter.Kerins used to teach high school, but now he travels four to five weeks every year to attend pinball tournaments. He also runs the March tournament for PAPA, the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association. The group hosts two tournaments a year, and they have spent years working on a special project: Turning pinball into a legitimate spectator sport.
How it began
Kevin Martin is another pinball enthusiast, and he's made a significant amount of money running an Internet hosting company called Pair Networks. He’s a man with a deep love of pinball and the means to help others compete. Martin now owns over 400 machines and runs the 40,000 square foot warehouse that serves as PAPA's headquarters. Tƒwice a year players come to Scott Township, Pennsylvania to find out who is the best, and to compete for over $25,000 in cash prizes. Fans of pinball who aren't competing can still play the machines during the tournament, and the money raised from play is donated to charity. “Pinball has been a spectator sport for the players that compete for several years. The finals have always been a spectacle because people are playing for a large amount of money, and that doesn’t happen very often so you get to see how people handle pressure, whether someone can make one big final shot,” Kerins said. “In the past you’ve been looking at that from the perspective of somebody’s butt and a screen saying how many points they have.” An image from a story about the 2009 tournament shows how hard it was to see the action. Five years ago a company came to film the finals to make a documentary, and they installed a camera 15 feet above the glass. Half the people watched the players that year, but the other half watched the camera crew's monitor, which gave a much better view. Martin had been looking for a way to present pinball to more people, and the technology had gotten to the point where you could record a high definition video at 60 frames per second and have it sent to a monitor so others could see exactly how the game played out, visible to the crowd, and saved for posterity. The wheels began to turn. Luckily, pinball already had the talent needed to tackle this sort of project. Keith Elwin is another world-class player, and his brother happens to be what Kerins described as a “great engineer and hacker.” Together they began to design a metal rig to hold a high-definition camera that would look down at the table and output the image to a vertically mounted HDTV. That way other people could see exactly what was happening on the table. “There was definitely trial and error,” Kerins said. How do you mount the camera? How do you make sure the system doesn’t bother the player? The Elwins designed a sort of metal arm that could hold a camera steady over the table, and it just so happened PAPA is located next door to a metal design company that could create the first prototypes. The first rig debuted at the 2010 tournament. “We filmed a couple games, including the very last game which turned out to be very close,” Kerins said. “That video ended up going viral on Slashdot and Gizmodo and so on; around 100,000 people saw that video.” The rig went through a few iterations. The latest design is much cleaner, and the camera sits around 8 feet above the table. The rig is also completely independent of the pinball machine to allow players to nudge and jostle the table without jiggling the image. Technology is definitely a concern, as the cameras need to be shooting in 1080p resolution at 60fps to catch the swift steel ball. Vertical monitors show the table as competitors play, allowing spectators to take in every detail of the action. “The biggest positive is that you can actually see what’s happening,” Kerins said. “Before this people were holding cameras to games, and you couldn’t see everything, or you couldn’t see the scoreboard, those are the things that are resolved by our designs. People see the videos and think it’s a screenshot of an iPhone game.” The group experimented with live color commentary, but it didn’t go over well. Players were used to getting lost in the machine, and hearing someone yell their actions would prove to be a distraction. “You see these fighting game commentaries, and they’re all live and the crowd is yelling and screaming, but what happens at the pinball tournaments is almost more like golf,” Kerins explained. “If you took someone and had them shout like at fighting game tournaments, they’d get thrown out very quickly.” Now commentary is added after the video is shot allowing the rules to be explained, players to be introduced, and more concise explanation of the play than would be possible live. PAPA uploads the videos to Vimeo, since Youtube won’t allow you to use vertical orientations for your videos. They even create videos explaining how to play different tables, so fans can work on strategies even if they don't have that particular table at a nearby arcade.
Kerins is realistic about the chances of pinball taking off as a spectator sport; it's hard enough finding tables to play on in many areas of the country. There are only two companies still making new pinball tables, and PAPA exists due to individuals willing to pour their own time and money into the enterprise. Still, hundreds of people show up for tournaments, and interest in pinball is growing in many markets. It's very possible that someone will see one of PAPA's videos and become interested in knocking a metal ball around a playing field and trying to get that elusive high score. It may not be possible to bring pinball to a mainstream audience, but keeping the sport alive? That is certainly possible, even likely. For those of us who love pinball, it's a worthy goal.