The International Flipper Pinball Association, revived by the sons of a pinball legend more than a decade ago, has helped boost the arcade game’s recent surge in popularity. The group’s member numbers are starting to look like high scores.
Vintage videogames have long evoked wide-eyed nostalgia among audiences of overgrown kids. But as retro videogames were hitting the comeback trail, another big arcade mainstay—pinball—didn’t gain the same attention.
Well, until now, that is. As the Associated Press reported last week, global pinball competition has increased nearly a hundredfold between 2006 and 2017. The International Flipper Pinball Association had 500 players in 50 competitions around the world in 2006; in 2017, it had 55,000 players participating in nearly 4,500 events.
The surge in competitive pinball reflects the work of IFPA, which was dormant for about a decade before game fanatics and world-class competitive players Zach and Josh Sharpe revived the organization in 2006. The association came back to life by helping to create a standardized player-ranking system that is still in use today.
In a 2016 Tablet magazine article, Josh noted that IFPA’s robust rebirth surprised even them. “It’s already surpassed where I thought it would ever get to, and the growth isn’t slowing down,” he said. IFPA’s membership is in the tens of thousands today.
The brothers are among the game’s top players, and their father, Roger, is a pinball historian and an adept player himself. The elder Sharpe famously convinced New York City that the arcade machines were games of skill, rather than luck, by showing off his skills to regulators who were considering lifting a ban on the game in the city.
Zach Sharpe, who also serves as a spokesperson for the Chicago-area pinball manufacturer Stern, said the success of the industry appears to be growing beyond competitive play. Year over year, Stern’s revenue jumped 30 percent in 2017, according to the AP, and 40 percent in 2016. Zach noted that players seem to be specifically looking for machines to play on online, which has helped boost awareness among enthusiasts.
“Pinball is not going away,” he told the AP. “It can’t be replicated, and I think that’s why it never truly goes away.”
Zach has plenty of reason to be positive about the state of pinball—he was recently named “World’s Greatest Pinball Player” for his solid track record in tournament play over the years.