The Pinball Wizards Among Us

The retro arcade game, a Cincinnati invention, ricochets into a new age.

Illustration by Scott Balmer

It’s a muggy summer evening at Arcade Legacy Newport, a cavern of electronic amusements in a shopping center between Supercuts and Crunch Fitness.

Justin Masterson steps up to Tron: Legacy, a pinball machine based on the sequel to the cult 1980s sci-fi movie. It’s got futuristic motorcycles on its sides and a play field pulsating blue, yellow, and orange lights to the electro beat of Daft Punk.

Jesse Baker, Cincinnati’s top-ranked pinball player, is photographed at his Arcade Legacy in Newport.

Photograph by Andrew Doench

Masterson, 43, is trailing Jesse Baker, also 43, who is Cincinnati’s top-ranked pinball player and the arcade’s owner. Masterson pulls the plunger ever so gently to knock off a skill shot (a specific first target after the ball release for extra points). He shoots the ball up a ramp lit by neon-like fiber optics, and it disappears into a scoop—a hole that locks the ball and then, after releasing it, activates multi-ball, sending steel spheres raining down. Masterson traps and cradles them in the flippers so he can deploy them, one at a time, to execute a strategic sequence of moves. With hip and hand, he nudges an outlane-bound ball into an in-lane. He saves another from the drain with a quick left/ right slap to the sides of the cabinet.

When he passes 22 million points, the machine knocks—a short, loud sound designed to let everyone in the place know he’s crushing it. Now he’s in multi-ball again! This time he’s flipping furiously, just trying to keep from draining. One more shove of the machine and it tilts: Game over. His score of 41 million trounces Baker’s 36 mil. Masterson steps away, beaming. “When I beat Jesse…” he says, gobsmacked. “Well, that never happens.”

The sweet smell of success doesn’t linger. Masterson—tall with short salt-and-pepper facial hair, wearing the pinball-player uniform of a baseball cap, T-shirt, and loose, knee-length shorts—goes on to lose the next three games in a row. He places fifth out of 11 in the tournament. “It’s a streaky game, a very mental game,” he says, rounding up his 12-year-old daughter, Bayla, who also competed. “But playing pinball is my happy place.”

Not unlike those multi-balls, more and more Cincinnatians are descending into that happy place all at once—or ricocheting back to it, like Masterson. As a suburbs-raised, middle-aged white man who was exposed to pinball as a kid, he typifies the core enthusiast demographic. “Pinball embodies an element of pure physics that video games don’t have,” says Masterson, who has soured on the latter since they’re pre-programmed and as such can be memorized and become predictable. “You get to be surprised every second of every pinball game. It keeps you fully present.”

Introducing Bayla to pinball back when she was 6 and bringing her to compete alongside him is part of a newer phenomenon that’s lending staying power to the trend. The new generation of fidgety flipper fingers suggests that pinball’s popularity isn’t just a passing hipster fad. Bayla demolishes me in our first game together, explaining that shots need to be strategized. “You could have a ball for 15 minutes and score lower than someone who has it for five if they hit the right things,” she says.

The Queen City is no stranger to the growing national predilection for nostalgic, tactile pastimes away from the computer, such as crafting and playing vinyl LPs. More than that, though, Cincinnati appears to be setting the tone for pinball’s 21st century comeback as a more family-oriented hobby while boosting the game’s new prominence as a competitive sport. Pinball has been around for close to a century, but only in the past few years could a Cincinnatian compete for rank in a globally recognized pecking order. To climb that list requires practice and frequent competing, which is bringing business back to arcades.

“Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland are probably in the top 10 of pinball cities in the U.S.,” says Chad Hobbs, who publishes Pin Headz, a monthly zine about the local silver-ball scene. “Seattle is first, and Pittsburgh is up there. But Cincinnati has probably grown the fastest of them.”

The stats back him up: The number of machines available for public play in this area has tripled since 2015. There are well over 200 in the arcades, bars, family amusement centers, and the odd ice cream stand between Florence’s Comics2Games (40 machines) and Pinball Garage in Hamilton (45). Arcade Legacy Newport has a 11,000-square-foot sister arcade, simply called Arcade Legacy, set to open soon in Sharonville. Wondercade opened last year in a former plumbing supply showroom in Westwood, and this past summer Anderson Tap House joined the growing list of craft beer emporiums with a wing of thoughtfully curated pinball machines. This explosion doesn’t include the expanding personal collections of folks like Phoebe and Larry Smith, whose Batavia home brims with more than 60 “pins,” as hobbyists call them.

Like Hobbs, Masterson found his raison d’etre when he rediscovered pinball several years ago. He taught himself to repair machines (refusing to accept pay for his service when helping out an arcade) and broadcasts commentary from pinball tournaments that stream live online. He’s more than your average stan, though—his mission is to raise pinball’s profile on the national and international stage and to give Cincinnati its due. The Queen City, he wants everyone to know, is where modern pinball was born.

“I spent a big chunk of last year making sure that if someone googled ‘birthplace of pinball’ Cincinnati would come up,” says Masterson, who works in marketing. He contacted news organizations last year about the 150th anniversary of pinball’s invention here. He called into a live radio show about the recent Made in Cincinnati exhibition at the Cincinnati Museum Center to inform listeners about pinball, which was overlooked in the show. “This year my goal is a demo reel for ESPN,” he says. “If we can watch cornhole tournaments or darts finals, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have commentary around pinball games.”

Even if modern pinball was born in these parts, the game itself has French origins. Bagatelle, an 18th century variation on billiards, may be forgotten today, but its pins of metal or wood standing sentry around holes or pockets on a tilted, dome-topped play field foretold the hobby that The Who (and Elton John) popularized a half-century ago with Pinball Wizard. Bagatelle migrated from France in the 1700s and spread across America. An 1863 political cartoon depicts Abe Lincoln playing the game, using a pool cue, in a tavern.

In 1871, Montague Redgrave, a British expat living in Cincinnati, secured a patent for “Improvements in Bagatelles.” A spring-loaded plunger built into the right side of a wooden case replaced the cue. Other defining aspects of the game, such as bell sound effects, made it more like modern pinball than anything before it. Other Ohioans in Youngstown modified a handmade tabletop bagatelle into a money-making contraption by adding a coin slot, plus a ball return and a glass top. That 1931 novelty, called Whiffle, was test-marketed in a drugstore where it “took in $2.60 in nickels in a single hour,” writes Alexander Smith, a historian who lives in Atlanta. “Before long, they were booking orders for over 2,000 Whiffle games per month.”

A handful of tinkerers around the country were simultaneously concocting similar contraptions. Several proved popular but could not be produced fast enough to keep up with demand from bars, stores, and train stations. It was the Depression era, and cheap entertainment provided a brief respite from the misery of breadlines and unemployment.

Cincinnati’s place in the history of pinball was all but forgotten by the mid-1930s, when Chicago, already a leading maker of coin-op amusements such as slot machines, eclipsed us as the game’s headquarters. The three biggest pinball manufacturers (Bally, Williams, and Gottlieb) rode wave after wave of the game’s popularity. It was a good run, all the way to the end of the century.

The bells and chimes went silent, though, by the year 2000. Video games had edged pinball machines out of arcade real estate. Home consoles were a literal game-changer, obviating the arcades themselves.

Stern Pinball Inc. arose from the millennial ashes in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, near Chicago, and is the game’s big kahuna today. It’s created more than 100 games, mainly licenses of bands, movies, and TV shows such as Stranger Things and The Mandalorian; an Eminem-themed game is rumored to be coming soon.

Pinball will undoubtedly remain the quirky little sibling to video games. But the post-pandemic desperation for human contact has fueled a return to a new phenomenon: arcade bars like BrewDog in Pendleton and Pins Mechanical Co. in Over-the-Rhine.

Sure, you can buy your own home pinball machine, as a growing number of people do, for several thousand dollars. But for most silver-ball fans, in-person playing with others in a venue where you can meet new acquaintances, grab a beer, and compete for the glory of inputting your name on the backbox display is the preferred method of play. Especially when there are so many sculpture-quality games to choose from. Batman 66 features a rotating bat cave and a TV set under the glass that runs footage from the original TV show. Ghostbusters has a hologram target that blows up a ghost when a ball passes under it. The Guns ‘n Roses pin takes a photo of you while playing and inserts it into one of the band, making it look as if you were hanging out with Axel and Slash. Upstart pinball machine makers, such as Jersey Jack Pinball and Spooky Pinball, compete to outdo each other with such novelties.

Two developments have raised the game’s profile in Cincinnati in recent years: The growth of Pincinnati, an annual tournament, and attention from the area’s royal family of pinball, the Bakers. Brad Baker owns Pinball Garage, a three-generational arcade bar: Paterfamilias Rick works behind the scenes and in maintenance, Brad owns the place and handles promotions, and his son Bradley is general manager. Brad’s brother Jesse Baker—the aforementioned top player in this area—owns Arcade Legacy, with about 80 pins. “Jesse brought back pinball,” Brad boasts, citing his brother’s string of locations starting in 2009, when pinball was a long-forgotten memory.

Brad Baker, who owns Pinball Garage in Hamilton, was named Citizen of the Year in 2021 by that city for his his hosting of countless charity events.

Photograph by Steve Colwell

The Bakers have done more than provide old-school arcade experiences for a nostalgic older generation and the new guard of enthusiasts. They’ve imbued a wholesomeness into the Cincinnati pinball scene, which may be the key to the game’s survival. Their Christian background is not discussed but can be felt.

Their father worked for Cincinnati Christian School in Fairfield, which Brad and Jesse attended, and their mother was a children’s pastor in Over-the-Rhine, where the family ministered to people in need. Today, people going through a rough patch can get a free meal at Pinball Garage, no questions asked. Brad Baker was named Citizen of the Year in 2021 by the city of Hamilton for his generosity in hosting countless charity events at the Garage. (As anyone in the pinball business will tell you, no one gets rich in it.)

“Part of the exciting thing about arcades was that they felt a little wrong,” says Brad. “As a kid you want a little of that feeling, that edge, but not to the point you did something wrong. You wanted to be an adult. It was an adult’s game back then. It was mostly in seedy bars with a bunch of guys smoking and drinking and talking wrong about women. Pinballs from before the mid-’80s highly objectified women, with lots of cleavage and suggestive voices in callouts. They were never geared toward a kid playing them.”

That part of the business hasn’t disappeared. Older games depicting stereotypes of women and minorities still gobble quarters. Stern came out (in 2015!) with Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, whose exploitative graphics are embarrassingly out of date. But Baker says the industry in general got the message when the video game biz steered toward G- and PG-rated fare, which guaranteed a wider customer base.

“We want to be family-friendly,” he says. “A lot of pinball bars are geared toward adults, with maybe a family night once or twice a week. We want kids to come and learn pinball alongside mom and dad.”

On a recent Sunday night, the Garage was hopping with retirees, tattooed middle-agers, young couples on dates, a woman in a wheelchair, and a dad coaching his 6-year-old on the Harlem Globetrotters game. There were kids everywhere. A 10-year-old DJ was rocking the adjacent patio, while a waitress weaved through the crowd delivering brisket sliders to families at picnic tables. Mission accomplished.

Pincinnati launched in 2018, and today it’s a multi-day tournament offering more than 100 free-play machines for the ticket-buying public. It has jumped in size each year, with 2020 skipped for obvious reasons. With the recent folding of two of the nation’s biggest pinball juggernauts—the Museum of Pinball in Banning, California, and Pinburgh, an annual confab in Pittsburgh—its rise has come at an auspicious time. “Ohio has three large pinball conventions a year now,” says Erik Wurtenberger, co-owner of Pincinnati with Jerry Westerkamp. “I don’t know if any other state has more than two.”

Pincinnati launched as a multi-day tournament in 2018 and returns in person December 2-4.

Photograph courtesy of Flip N Out Pinball

Pincinnati relies on the Baker brothers for machines and overall support. The convention is similarly committed to keeping the sport not just family-friendly but welcoming to segments of the population that have been underrepresented in arcades. “New people are getting into it,” says Wurtenberger, who was preparing for the fourth edition of Pincinnati December 2–4 at the Holiday Inn Eastgate. “It’s shifting slowly but steadily. A lot of women are playing. There’s an entire women’s competitive league called Belles and Chimes. And it’s exploded with younger players. It’s easy for multiple ages, genders, and lifestyles to be on the competitive tip.”

Having competed in pinball shows across the country—he’s ranked 12th in his home state of Kentucky—Wurtenberger developed a clear sense of the vibe he wanted at the Cincinnati show. No profane freakouts over losses. Etiquette rules posted on each game. Never scheduling women’s tournament games in conflict with general competitions, in which women are also welcome to play. Pincinnati would also not be part of a larger comic-con type of event that draws furries, cosplayers, and others keen on the sexier side of leisure activities. In short, it would be less about hard partying and more about pinball.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of official competitions in the rise of pinball. And that’s where Jesse Baker comes in. Up until 2015 there were no tournaments here (that we know of) sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association, competitive pinball’s governing body. Phoebe and Larry Smith, the Batavia couple whose game-filled home had been ground zero for Cincinnati pinball leagues, wanted to improve their IFPA ranking, which is recognized internationally, so they secured credentials to run a tournament in their house in 2015. The following year, Baker’s Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition in Northside (now closed) ran the city’s first IFPA-endorsed tournaments in a public establishment. Thirteen people showed up.

Today, Baker says, “We have over 100 unique players locally who come to any given tournament.” That doesn’t include out-of-towners like Carlos Delaserda and John Delzoppo, Columbus and Cleveland players, respectively, who rank in the top 30 players worldwide and who travel here for tournaments. Meanwhile, someone like Justin Masterson, who travels for work, can also now play in any IFPA-approved competition in any city, and his scores will figure into his world ranking. That wasn’t possible before.

It’s been 150 years since modern pinball was invented here, and Cincinnatians are not done tinkering with the game. Masterson and Wurtenberger are fine-tuning the tournament broadcasts with pre-recorded videos such as explainers on the objectives of particular pinball machines. At the University of Cincinnati, a professor teaches two courses in pinball machine design, the nation’s first accredited university courses in a science niche that’s starting to spread to other campuses.

Will pinball storm pop culture again the way it did in the 1950s? Or the ‘70s or the ‘90s? Maybe. Sales of machines are on the upswing, arcades are expanding, and the IFPA will soon reach six figures in its number of ranked players.

At last year’s Pincinnati event, I had to drag my then 9-year-old nephew out of the game hall after two hours of nonstop play; it was his first experience of flipping the ball from pop bumper to drop-target, and he didn’t want it to end. On a recent Saturday evening, I brought him and his sister, now 10 and 6 respectively, to Wondercade. Parents and grandparents drank White Claw and beer. A slightly skeevy guy asked if I wanted to go out and smoke weed, just like in arcades of yore!

I wasn’t as successful this time getting the kids to take to the silver ball. My nephew fell in with a group of kids in multi-player video games. His sister took the wheel at a driving simulator, squealing at every fiery collision. Standing next to the foosball tables, I waited to use the Guardians of the Galaxy pinball machine, which features Groot, whose kinetic mouth can gobble a ball or spit out multi-balls.

“Push the button, flip the flipper!” a 30-something dad coached, his hand on top of his son’s tiny paws. The kid, just 3 years old, stood on a stool, his eyes wide as saucers, for his first crack at pinball.

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