“I used to call pinball Pittsburgh’s best-kept secret,'” says Elizabeth Cromwell, as she motions around Kickback Pinball Cafe in Lawrenceville, “but it just keeps growing.” On this sunny weekday afternoon, many of the cafe’s 50+ machines are occupied, whurrings and pings punctuating our conversation. Children too short to see the gaming cabinets pull up stools to get a better look at the game, while seasoned pros play next to them with quiet concentration.
Not only is the secret out, but with the help of Cromwell and a dedicated league, the pastime is reaching a whole new audience internationally, and it’s all happening in Pittsburgh.
ReplayFX & Pinburgh 2019
Cromwell, an owner of Kickback, as well as the assistant director of the Replay Foundation (a nonprofit focused on “the preservation, restoration, and enjoyment of pinball technology”), says pinball’s revival in Pittsburgh is due mostly in part to a few dedicated players, including Kevin Martin, who acquired the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) and brought it to Pittsburgh in 2004.
“I’d say pinball fans came first, then the machines second,” explains Cromwell. PAPA continued to grow in its new hometown of Pittsburgh, with machines and fans pouring in. While the association hosts competitions, it also promotes education around the care and preservation of all types of pinball machines.
From there, pinball in Pittsburgh has evolved, and what was the PAPA and World Pinball Championships has morphed into the Replay Foundation and Replay FX, which will take over the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in its entirety August 1-4. The event, which showcases all types of gaming, will have over 1,000 pinball machines and the largest pinball competition in the world.
Slots to compete in Pinburgh, the official competition that’s a part of Replay FX, sold out in five seconds online earlier this year, and still has a 500 long waitlist of eager pinball players. Competitors will come in from across the world, but many of the sport’s best players actually come from the Pittsburgh area. A quick look at the international online rankings shows 40 of the top 70 players reside in Pittsburgh.
Not ready for the big leagues? The competition might be sold out, but there are plenty of ways to join in the fun. Spectators can purchase entry and are welcome to check out the event and play open machines.
Pinball for All!
So not only can you play in Pittsburgh, but you might be rubbing elbows with some of the top ballers in the world. But don’t let that intimidate you, explains Cromwell, who prioritizes making pinball a welcoming activity for all. When she first started playing, she didn’t see many women in the sport, but through weekly meetups and leagues, she’s helped bolster a more inclusive community.
To the unindoctrinated, pinball might look like a solitary game, just a single player in front of the machine. In reality, pinball machines typically have multiplayer modes, which makes them ideal for leagues, camaraderie, and competition.
Any women looking to get started can join the informal Monday meetups at Kickback. If you’re looking for something more structured, try one of the many summer leagues in the city. Or just drop by Kickback or any local dive where a pinball machine’s present, Cromwell explains.
With such passionate fans of the game in Pittsburgh, it’s likely any player will teach you the ropes. And when in doubt, follow Cromwell’s rule of thumb: “If something’s flashing on the board, you’ll want to hit it with the ball.”
Perseverance of Pinball
With the rise of esports and other online gaming, you’d might think analog-style pinball would be collecting dust in basements across the country. Instead, the pastime is growing, with seasoned players passing on knowledge and skills to newcomers.
Replay FX has helped pinball collectors and enthusiasts learn the ins and outs of machines – not only how to play them but how to preserve them for future gamers. The nonprofit has amassed a collection of more than 1,000 pinball and arcade games, some over 80 years old.
Some might think the best way to keep these machines in good condition is in a museum under lock and key, but as Cromwell explains, “We think the best way to preserve something is to keep playing it. We’re like a living museum in that way.”
Replay FX 2019 & Pinburgh Competition Details
David L Lawrence Convention Center
1000 Fort Duquesne Blvd,
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
- Thursday, August 1: 9AM – 1AM
- Friday, August 2: 9AM – 1AM
- Saturday, August 3: 9AM – 2AM
- Sunday, August 4: 9AM – 5PM
Photo Credits: Laurel Mountain Photography