How pinball wizards are defining the game's future

Enter a world where 450 pinball machines is only the beginning.

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Kevin Martin knew things were bad when he stopped his car on a bridge, peered over the side and saw the river water rising. When the water started to engulf his car, he began walking.

Weeks earlier, Hurricane Ivan had made landfall on the Gulf Coast, devastating vast swaths of Ala., Fla., La. and Texas. Those in the Midwest and along the eastern seaboard know that landfall doesn't mark the end of a hurricane's destruction. Over the next few days, Ivan inched north, wringing out rain as it spread out across the country.

Ivan dissipated, but not before it drenched Scott Township, Pa. with nearly six inches of rain, which was now causing the river to swell underneath the bridge on which Martin parked. As Chartiers Creek flooded, the water spilled out toward the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association's headquarters, and Martin understood his dire strait when the water rose, foot by foot, to the bottom of the first pinball machine. By the end of the day that Ivan hit Scott Township on Sept. 17, 2004, the 100-year flood had submerged PAPA HQ in five feet of water, sludge and diesel fuel from the surrounding buildings.

Only five days before, the 30,000-square-foot PAPA warehouse, just 10 miles outside of Pittsburgh and a couple hundred feet from the shores of Chartiers Creek — just a few miles away from the bridge — hosted the PAPA 7 World Pinball Championships. That event was the first Martin organized after acquiring the organization. Less than a week later, the creek was cresting, and the headquarters he'd purchased and built was in imminent danger of being wiped out.

After the devastation, Martin came back and began to rebuild. That process of tearing down, building up and scavenging rotting pinball machines for spare parts, would, with the help of others, continue for the next nine years. Today, PAPA HQ is the home of more than 450 pinball machines. And if things go according to plan, this is just the beginning.

Over the last few years, with the flood far behind them, three key players at PAPA have been looking to the future of both their organization and their lifelong hobby. They've begun expanding PAPA with new technologies and participating in new tournaments that they hope will evangelize the sport. Kevin Martin, Mark Steinman and the reigning World Pinball Champion Bowen Kerins are spreading the good word, and they're taking steps to position the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association as the game's steward for future generations.

PAPA's second founder

Long before he was the CEO of a successful web hosting service, Kevin Martin had an entrepreneurial spirit that was tied to pinball. As a kid, he knew how to make the most of quarters.

His mom was in a bowling league, and she gave him money to spend around the alley as she bowled. There were two ways to spend his allowance.

"There was nothing else of interest, first of all, except the arcade, to an 8- or 9-year-old in a bowling alley," Martin says. "And the quarters that I had lasted a lot longer, I found, when I played the pinball machines. Not only were video games brutally hard back then, which I completely respect, but I think they had maybe Atari Black Widow or something. You'd be destroyed in 45 seconds. Or you could play Eight Ball or something and have three or four minutes of entertainment and maybe win a free game."

That was Martin's introduction to pinball, and the beginning of a lifelong hobby.

Martin grew up, but he never grew out of pinball. He continued to play in college and in grad school. He took pinball road trips and started a website that listed the machines he visited and their conditions. He moved to Pittsburgh, where he joined a coffee house pinball league in the early '90s.

"The feeling that was in that ballroom in the Central Park Hotel really got into my blood."

He took a job at Carnegie Mellon, where he eventually realized that he wasn't really using his computer science degree for anything worthwhile. Using his own website as a springboard, he founded a web hosting company, Pair Networks, in January 1996. The now-CEO has been running his web hosting company for more than 17 years.

Before he was a CEO, Martin began to hone his skills playing The Addams Family pinball at the local mall and whatever pinball games were available in his student union. In 1993, he and a group of friends attended their first tournament, the PAPA 3 World Pinball Championships.

"The feeling that was in that ballroom in the Central Park Hotel really got into my blood," he says. "That's what I've always wanted to recreate ever since.

"I like the technical aspect — that there's a bunch of scores going up and down a list — and there's competition in the air, and there's fun, and there's camaraderie, and there's pinball everywhere. It's all about pinball."

PAPA's founder was ready for retirement by 1996, and PAPA World Championships faded away. Martin was undeterred, and in 2000 began running a local pinball tournament called Pinburgh, named for the Pittsburgh area it serviced.

He also began collecting pinball machines, which he used at the tournaments. The bigger the events got, the more machines he needed. That became an increasingly difficult problem in search of a solution.

"One time, I had a guy lined up, and he got sick, and he couldn't come," Martin says. "He was coming from Fla. with his pinball machines, and he didn't come. It was a pretty desperate situation. So that was a great excuse to build up my own collection, which I had in storage."

By early 2004, he'd purchased a warehouse in Scott Township, Pa. to store his collection. He called PAPA's retired founder Steve Epstein with a proposal: He'd acquire the PAPA name and remaining merchandise from him and start running the tournaments in the warehouse under the resurrected PAPA banner.

It was all coming together. Kevin Martin held his first PAPA tournament, the PAPA 7 World Pinball Championships, Sept. 9-12, 2004, five days before Hurricane Ivan took almost everything from him.

CoverHurricane Ivan covered many of PAPA's games in dirt, such as one above that has yet to be cleaned a decade later.

PAPA's caretaker

9896991675_10b33f4fc2_bThe Addams Family is one of the most popular pinball games of all time.

Mark Steinman used to run a wedding photography business, but his wife does now because pinball took over.

Steinman is in charge of everything under PAPA HQ's roof, of maintaining more than 450 pinball machines and plotting a course of PAPA's future. He's a pinball evangelist, and he, too, can trace his love of pinball back to his mom's purse.

"My story of getting involved in pinball is pretty similar, probably, to how the vast majority of people got involved in arcades," Steinman says. "I was a kid. I just stole quarters out of my mom's purse."

His goal was simple: He wanted to play as long as he could, and if you were good enough, pinball offered free games.

"I played pinball machines because they lasted longer, and I got spanked a lot less because I didn't have to steal as many quarters."

"The local leagues are the modern arcade. You're meeting other people that you know, every Thursday or every Friday or whatnot."

Steinman grew up, arcades disappeared and he played pinball less and less. A few years ago, he bought his brother a pinball machine. They'd rediscovered pinball and started playing in a local league, and quickly realized that the only way to get good is to own your own game or live close to a place with machines. Steinman lives "in the middle of nowhere," as he puts it.

He and his brother not only rediscovered pinball, but they rediscovered something that had been lost when the arcades disappeared.

"The local leagues are the modern arcade," he says. "You're meeting other people that you know, every Thursday or every Friday or whatnot. You're going down to the bar. You're going to grab a few drinks; you're going to play a few games against your friends."

He'd built up something of a reputation, and eventually PAPA came calling.

"These guys called me," he says. "Since I was local, and I run my own company, I have the time to work down here, and they asked me if I wanted to take over and sort of help guide this place to where it is now.

"I originally said, 'Not a chance in hell. It's way too much work.'"

But he couldn't say no forever. He talked to his wife, and they decided that the opportunity was too good to pass up. Now, PAPA HQ survives in large part because Mark Steinman's there to take care of it. And the future of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association is inextricably linked to the ideas that he has — like the very successful Kickstarter campaign for PAPA TV that he helped organize earlier this year.

9897062633_b571496121_hInside PAPA's warehouse

PAPA's reigning champion


Bowen Kerins earned the title of World Pinball Champion at PAPA 16 in August 2013. The milestone capped a 20-year journey that began with his father.

At first, Kerins played pinball because his dad played pinball. When his father moved on to golf, Bowen stuck with pinball. He continued to play in arcades throughout grade school and high school, becoming the best player in the area, but it wasn't until he got to college and joined leagues that he realized how rudimentary his skills were.

"I met these guys who were just way better than I was, doing things that I hadn't even thought of with the ball," Kerins says. "Stopping the ball with the flippers, passing it around, and doing all sorts of skill moves I just wouldn't even have thought of if I hadn't seen these folks."

Kerins learned from the contemporary masters, and soon became hooked on the idea of competition. The first tournament he attended took place in the early '90s in San Francisco and was run by PAPA. He was tantalized by the prospect of winning a free ticket to the World Championships in New York City, but he lost in the finals.

"This last year, we used 200 pinball machines, and people were playing them all at once."

He went anyway, and he's been going to tournaments ever since.

In those early days, Kevin Martin was just another player like Kerins. When Martin took his first steps toward organizing pinball, Kerins was there to give "little pieces of advice." He also volunteered to help with Martin's website, creating content such as strategy guides.

Both men were dedicated to the proposition that pinball needed an entity like PAPA to organize and guide tournaments. Kerins started selling Martin on the idea of a match-play tournament after he acquired the PAPA HQ facility outside of Pittsburgh.

Match-play tournaments have several advantages. First, they acknowledge each player's skill by matching them up with players of similar abilities. Second, they're easy to understand, which makes spectating a lot easier. Third, they enable people of all skill levels to participate, matched against fair opponents.

The organizational problem with a match-play tournament, however, is that it requires a lot of machines, as players switch between several during the qualifying rounds. PAPA held its first match-play tournament about four years ago at the only place that could handle something like that: PAPA HQ.

"This last year, we used 200 pinball machines," Kerins says. "And people were playing them all at once."

Building PAPA's future

The momentum began to shift a few years ago.

Those in charge of PAPA had rebuilt and had been running reliable tournaments for years. But in many ways, the process of rebuilding continues.

Now, though, the focus is less on rebuilding than expanding. Advances in technology like affordable, high-quality streaming video allow PAPA to bring pinball to the masses. You don't need to travel to Pittsburgh to watch the tournaments. And thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign in mid-2013, the future of PAPA pinball will be available live and online.

PAPA TV is compelling evidence that PAPA and pinball will continue to grow. The crowdfunding campaign ended in late May with nearly three times its goal.

"The goal was 20 grand because we wanted to make [PAPA TV] happen," Steinman says. "Everyone has seen Kickstarters happen and fail, and we didn't want to get caught in that trap. We needed a little boost, but we wanted to make sure that we would be capable of doing something. We set the goal at 20 grand, even though we knew we would end up having to kick some money in ourselves. We hit that goal in 18 hours."

"Getting this thing together and getting it ready in time to broadcast our first event was something."

With the money it raised, PAPA purchased new equipment to stream its tournaments. The first public opportunity to show it was in August 2013, at PAPA 16.

"This was hell on earth," Steinman tells Polygon, referring to the broadcast booth in PAPA HQ, where wires and monitors and microphones sit in a perch overlooking the showroom floor. "Getting this thing together and getting it ready in time to broadcast our first event was something. It was a lot of 3 or 4 a.m. nights down here, trying to figure out, 'Why am I not getting the right signal?' or this and that."

This is Steinman's vision, empowered by Kevin Martin. "I never could have conceived of this, the way he's doing it," Martin says. "It would not happen without him."

What Martin can do, aside from what he estimates has been a seven-figure investment over the years, is his best to keep PAPA going even in his absence. Not long ago, he established a nonprofit operating foundation to run PAPA.

"It's not just me," Martin said. "I mean, I'm a guy who spent a bunch of money to build this and to keep it going, but it's not about me. It's about a much bigger vision and purpose."

Now, the Replay Foundation owns all PAPA's machines. Soon, it will own PAPA HQ. Eventually, the plan is to absorb the organization itself.

This is the future of PAPA — and, perhaps, the future of organized pinball, on a large scale.

The Weird History of Pinball

Modern pinball machines trace their ancestry back to the early 1930s, when manufacturers started making electronic, coin-operated devices. But for about 30 years in some of America's biggest cities, their legacy saddled them with an odd burden. Pinball was illegal.

Before the invention of flippers, the switch-controlled mechanisms that fling pinballs up through the playing surface, pinball machines were seen as little more than gambling devices. In 1942, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned and confiscated thousands of pinball machines — there's a famous picture of him fighting crime by smashing one with a sledgehammer. LaGuardia's ban would stand until 1976.

Then, alongside the rise of video games in the late '70s and early '80s, pinball made a resurgence. You could find pinball machines in arcades and bowling alleys, alongside their video game cousins. On many machines of the era, you can still find little signs that remind players that pinball is "For Amusement Only."

Though pinball became more mainstream, it still had to fight the gambling-days stigma.

"Pinball has a long history of fighting the law," Steinman says.

As pinball machines rose in popularity, so did player skill. Steve Epstein, who owned the Broadway Arcade in New York City, organized the first PAPA World Championship, where the best players from around the U.S. could showcase their skills.

It's not difficult to plot the ascension of video games from the arcade to the living room. But pinball, by its very nature, had a bigger challenge. It's not exactly a portable hobby. Players typically have to find machines wherever they can, and when arcades disappeared, so did pinball machines to a large extent. PAPA exists, in part, to reverse that trend.

Upward and onward

PAPA is growing, but there is still much to be done. In the headquarters' graveyard, tucked behind a nondescript locked door sandwiched between functioning pinball machines, you can still find boards caked with a thin layer of mud from the great flood of 2004. Mark Steinman is still working on them, still salvaging for parts, many of which he'll continue to donate or sell to ailing machines. They used to be stacked five deep, he tells us. Now, there are maybe a dozen, all told.

In the middle of this enormous room sit maybe 10 machines that fall into two categories: those PAPA has no room for and those he's preparing for future use.

But out on the PAPA show floor, there are hundreds of working machines. Next March, PAPA's organizers will flip each individual switch, light up the warehouse and invite competitors and the public in for Pinburgh 2014, the latest installment in the match-play tournament that Bowen pushed so hard for.

"now we're in the process of making it even better. Onwards and upwards."

For now, though, the machines lie dormant. Opening PAPA HQ to the public is an expensive proposition. The licensing fees alone for operating so many machines would quickly deplete whatever bankroll PAPA has saved up.

That's OK with Mark Steinman, at least for now. Pinball fans will amass outside of Pittsburgh twice next year, and the pinball machines will serve their purpose. Fans will camp out in the parking lot, tailgate the event with PAPA's blessing and create a microcosm of the community of pinball enthusiasts that Kevin Martin, Mark Steinman and Bowen Kerins hope will spread across the country.

"It's built. It worked," Steinman says. "And now we're in the process of making it even better. Onwards and upwards." Babykayak

Images: Dave Tach
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan