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State of the Arts: Northeast Ohio's Full-Tilt Pinball Renaissance

This story was originally published on May 3, 2019.

Pinball is surging in popularity across the country. Here in Northeast Ohio, casual players are rediscovering once forgotten games. And there’s a competitive pinball scene brewing that draws in players from hundreds of miles away.

On this week’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Mark Arehart has his quarters ready as he takes us through the region's pinball renaissance.

What begins with a little metal ball shooting into action has grown into an obsession for David Spasic.

"So we'll start it up, play a little bit," Spasic said as he saddles up to a vintage pinball machine. 

As co-owner of Superelectric Pinball restoration on Cleveland’s west side, Spasic breathes new life into one of America’s forgotten pastimes.

"It’s been my day and night job for at least a year now."

It started when Spasic and some friends resurrected a machine from a lonely basement.

"We cleaned that one up. It ended up someone really wanted it, so we sold that one and bought a couple more and continued our obsession from then on. Now we have over 100 machines probably here."

They line the walls of the repair shop, from old analog games to more modern ones. Spasic said demand is only getting higher. So much so that Superelectric has opened a pinball parlor just around the corner in Gordon Square.

Nostalgia is a big factor, but he believes screen time fatigue and a need for social interaction are driving this pinball boom.

And it's not growing just here in Ohio. 

Steady Growth
"Just to put things in perspective, for 2018, there were 21,334 players [worldwide]," Josh Sharp said over the phone from Chicago. 

He's the president of the International Flipper Pinball Association, the governing body for all things competitive pinball. 

Sharpe and his team took over the IFPA in 2006, and they've seen more and more players join.

"It really has been this slow and steady year, over year, over year, over year growth."

The majority of players are in the United States, but Sharpe said players from Akron or Cleveland are ranked against players from across the globe.

"They can really compete against players in France who are playing the French circuit of events. We’ve found a way to normalize those results to be able to compare one player to another regardless of where their activity is coming from."

A peek inside Superelectric's restoration studio in Cleveland.
A peek inside Superelectric's restoration studio in Cleveland.

Home Grown Heroes
There are pinball hot spots across America from Portland, Oregon to Pittsburgh. 

Just ask Joe Kiskis who owns Kidforce Collectiblesin Berea. "So the pinball scene in Ohio is really big. Cleveland is kind of a mecca for pinball," Kiskis said as dozens of pinball players flood his store for a tournament. 

More than 150 players participate in this league trying to up their IFPA rankings. 

Ian Verschuren and his son Quin both compete in the Kidforce pinball league.
Ian Verschuren and his son Quin both compete in the Kidforce pinball league.

"All of our events you can use as a stepping stone to go to states, go to nationals and go to worlds, and potentially become a world champion in pinball playing."

Some players here are ranked in the top 150 in the world, while others like 12-year-old Quin Verschuren are just starting out. 

"It’s fun having people to play and try to beat," he said as his dad, Ian, looks on. 

"You start finding these locations all across the country," Ian Verschuren said.  "Lots of great places to go and see. It gives you something to do when you’re out and about."

The Belles and Chimes
About a dozen miles east, at Melt Bar and Grill in Independence, a different kind of pinball league is heating up.

"We're here for a women's pinball tournament," Megan Brown said as we're surrounded by pinball machines named after bands and movie heroes. 

Brown runs the Cleveland chapter of Belles and Chimes, a women's only league.

She describes pinball as a "dude's game," but said that's changing. "All different kinds of people are getting into pinball and I’m pretty invested in cultivating more of a women's scene."

For Brown, who is ranked 16th in the world among women, pinball is a puzzle. The more you practice, the better you are at putting the pieces together.

As she racks up points with lightning speed she shows me basic flipper skills. 

Megan Brown runs the Cleveland chapter of Belles and Chimes, an all female pinball league.
Megan Brown runs the Cleveland chapter of Belles and Chimes, an all female pinball league.

"But really it's about slowing the ball down and finding ways to catch a ball on the flipper and hold it and think about what you’re next shot is."

She pushes into the machine with her body, called tilting, to get the ball right where she wants it. 

But if you tilt it too much, it's game over and time to grab some more quarters. 

Brown thinks the area's pinball scene can go toe to toe with just about any other. 

"If you’re coming to Cleveland, be ready. If you’re coming to Cleveland, people are ready to throw down."

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.