The Detroit Pinball League

John White stands in front of the machine, shifts his weight from foot to foot, grips the machine and taps the buttons on the sides with feather-like precise touch. In front of him, the flippers propel the small steel ball from one flashing target to the next. The shiny sphere ricochets around the machine, setting off bells and buzzers as it goes. With a carefully timed flipper press, White launches the ball up the center of the sloped playfield and into a slot. Above the blinking chaos of the playfield, a video screen displays a giant robot Abraham Lincoln fighting against Martians.

White is a man in his 40s with a graying mustache. He wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt. After a few minutes at the machine, the ball slips between the flippers and into the gutter. As White steps back from the machine, another player compliments him.

“Great ball, man.”

In a finished basement illuminated by the backlights of pinball machines, about twenty men talk and laugh amid the cacophony of a home arcade. Seven pinball machines line the walls, along with video game cabinets, a mini-bar, and a nacho machine. Grown men stand in front of their machines focused on their respective games, some with a beer resting in the machine’s attached cup holder, others too focused to drink or talk. Above a sofa are lined up movie posters advertising “Pulp Fiction,” “The Godfather,” and “Scarface.” High on one wall a customized neon sign reads, “Mike’s Gameroom.” This is Mike Muglia’s basement, and it’s his turn to host the Detroit Pinball League.

In one corner of the room, a game called Devil’s Dare sits with its back-glass pried off, wires and circuitry laid bare. Three men labor over it trying to coerce the wires and parts into some kind of working order. As they prod and poke at the machine’s guts, the machine makes the same “tilt” noise–the sound of a buzzer mixed with a slide whistle–every three seconds.

Most of the members stand around and stalk or eat a few chips, having just finished their round. One man still stands in front of his machine, racking up points in the tens of millions, having long since surpassed his opponents.

A group of friends like this could come together to play anything: cards, pool, bowling. But for the assemblage congregated in Muglia’s basement, pinball is the game. Nostalgic, challenging, puzzling.

John “J Dubbs” White started the Detroit Pinball League in 2005 with his friends Scott Freeman and Mick McDonald. They gathered in White’s basement one evening for a few games of pinball and discussed that there are no good places to play pinball in Detroit anymore. White started to reach out to pinball enthusiasts in the area, and soon he set up a meet and greet for the original Detroit Pinball League.

Most pinball machines left are found in bowling alleys or movie theaters. They’re tucked away in cramped game rooms, sandwiched between a bass-fishing arcade game and an expensive claw machine full of stuffed animals and plastic jewelry. If they happen to work, it’s bound to have flaws. Not all of the switches and bumpers may function, some of the lights won’t come on, or the ball may simply get stuck in the shooter lane. When they break, they’re forgotten and left to collect dust; eventually they’re sold or unceremoniously discarded. They stand as monoliths of the history of the arcade.

White recalled playing pinball as a child when he and his brother were in the Woodhaven hockey league. They would take turns practicing. While his brother was out on the ice, White would spend time with the pinball machines in the hockey arena.

“We played hockey there for 14 years,” White says, “There were always pinball machines.”

In late 2001, White and his wife went to Gameworks for a company Christmas party. White played a pinball machine for the first time in years. He said that night after they returned home, he and his wife considered buying one for their house as a Christmas present. The first machine they bought was Eight Ball Champ, a pool themed pin.

By the following February, they had four more machines in their house. That was the start of White’s pinball collection.

White works as a boilermaker, maintaining and repairing boilers for the Monroe Power Plant. He works the graveyard shift, staying up until after 4 a.m. But when he gets a free day, he unwinds by playing pinball in his game room. He doesn’t watch much TV.

But even though White had an impressive pinball collection, he didn’t want to play them alone. He used to go out drinking with the guys after work. These days, he brings the guys to his house to play pinball.

“I like it when my high score stands up.”

 

He sought out other pinball enthusiasts at trade shows and on the Internet. He invited them over to use his pins. And then he began to write the rules for the DPL: Twenty players a night, five rounds on five machines, highest points awarded to the highest score in each round, and always respect the house rules of the host.

At each league night, White and Freeman briefly give some updates for league members before assigning everyone a starting machine.

“I loosened up the tilt on the Revenge From Mars, because the ball was getting stuck up in the pop bumpers,” White says. “Devil’s Dare is down, so we went to Judge Dredd.”

He gestures at a league member on the other side of the room. “What’s Dracula doing?”

The league members take some time to discuss whether the Bram Stoker’s Dracula machine is working well enough to play that evening. Just before they begin, White comments that fewer members have been showing up lately like they’re supposed to.

“Well, maybe if our president would call people like he’s supposed to,” jokes member Eric Avedesian. The room breaks out into laughter. “Ah, I’m just bustin’ your balls,” he says later.

“Balls busted, note taken,” White says with a smile.

Co-founder Scott Freeman says when they started he wanted one rule: No playing for money involved. He wanted to keep it strictly about playing for fun.

These days Freeman works nine to five at Ford as an application engineer, working on fuel pumps for the Ford Taurus. He plays pinball in the evenings. But he can remember playing pinball for the first time when he was young, at his family’s diner in Hell, Michigan.

“I was pushed up to the flippers and set on a chair so I could see over the glass,” Freeman recalls.

As an adult, Freeman began collecting. His first machine was The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Then he found out about pinball trade shows. Then he learned about tournaments.

The PAPA (Professional and Amateur Pinball Association) tournament held annually in Pennsylvania is essentially a World Pinball Championship. Cash prizes are awarded to winners of the amateur and professional divisions, including $10,000 for first prize.

 

No one knows this as well as DPL member John “Koz” Kosmal, who placed in the top three finalists in the 2007 PAPA professional division. He is one of the best pinball players in the world.

On league night, Kosmal stands calmly in front of a Sopranos pin. The multi-ball bonus is active—there are three balls currently in play. Kosmal cradles the three silver orbs in the nook of the bent flippers, holding them while he studies the play field in front of him. He looks to see which targets are lit, which gates are down, and which multipliers are active. For 30 seconds he examines the board while a pair of tiny plastic strippers spin around stripper poles jutting out of a ramp on the board.

“Pinball could be ten times as complicated as chess,” Kosmal says. He says with all the different modes on modern pinball machines, strategy becomes a big factor. Do you simply try to get the biggest multiplier first, or do you try to finish the game’s story-oriented “wizard mode” and get the big end bonus? Knowing the rules of a specific machine in advance can give a player an advantage.

Though Kosmal is very competitive when he plays for money, when he’s at league night he just has fun with it. He says there’s also an element of randomness to it that makes things interesting.

“Anybody here can beat me at any given time,” Kosmal says. “And it happens all the time.”

“I myself, I don’t read the rules,” White says. “I play on instinct.”

White said there is a bit of a gap in the skill levels of some players. But he says it’s not really about the competition.

“We just have fun. That’s all it is,” he says. “There’s no bickering or bitching.”

“Half the guys in the league are just enjoying drinking beer and having fun,” Freeman says. “Every now and then you’ll have a spark of competition.”

“It’s just bragging rights,” White said.

For the members of the DPL, their hobby is as almost as much about collecting pinball machines as it is playing them. Kosmal works with his landscape business to fund his hobby, he’s collected 42 machines, some of which are kept in a storage unit. Clay Harrel, a DPL member who has a side business repairing pins, estimates that he has around 200.

Member Tom Brackett says once you get one machine, it starts to draw you in. You’ve got to get another one,” member.

Todd Newman prefers to collect the older, electromechanical machines. Pins made in the ’90s and beyond began to have more complicated gameplay, dot matrix screens for showing scores and other information, and became more prevalent. But Newman prefers the sense of nostalgia and the simplicity he can get from playing the classics.

White says the classics are more accessible because they give everyone a chance.

“It’s the same reason more people go to McDonald’s than a steak house or chop house,” Kosmal says.

Newman is even fascinated by the history of pinball itself. In the infancy of pinball, the game was illegal in most states, because it was considered to be a form of gambling. At that time pinball machines did not yet have flippers. In 1942, about a month after the invasion of Pearl Harbor New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned pinball and smashed several machines with a sledgehammer as a publicity move. The ban remained in effect until 1972.

Newman says as a collector, for years his “holy grail” was the Ship Ahoy “Add-a-Ball” version. Add-a-ball is a feature on machines that existed in areas were gambling is illegal and free replays were seen as a thing of value. The idea was that while giving the player a free game for doing well was too close to gambling, awarding the player a few extra balls on their current game was okay.

For Newman, half the enjoyment of collecting the machines is repairing them and keeping them in working condition. When he’s buying an old pin from a seller, he prefers it to be broken, so he can get it for a little bit cheaper.

“Whether it’s broken or not, I’m going to take it apart,” Newman says.

“I want that project,” member Brian Munn says. “That diamond in the rough.”

On league night, a few of the guys inspect the Devil’s Dare machine. A metal coil on the baseboard makes a strange burning smell.

“You smell that?” says one of the guys. “That’s the smell of 1980!”

That particular coil can start fires if it is not carefully maintained. White refers to his own collection as “The Fire Hazard Arcade,” containing 22 machines. One of the games, titled Firepower, caught fire when a transistor on the board fried.

“Not only are they toys, they’re big old man puzzles,” White says.

“There’s no better thrill in the world than bringing a game back to life after 20 years of it sitting broken. Well, almost,” Eric Avedesian, the league’s “resident budding technician” says.

Avedisian describes the series of problems he has restoring one machine, Blackout. He bought the machine with a broken diode on it, which would have been easy to replace. But the previous owner had installed larger and larger capacity fuses on the machine to keep it running, which ultimately melted down the transformer. Once Avedesian replaced all those parts and plugged it in, another fuse blew, and he had to troubleshoot the power supply.

Avedesian spent $50 in parts and 30 hours of time on a machine he bought for $200. He has 18 such machines in his collection.

If you don’t stay on top of your pinball machines, they will break. It’s a labor of love for guys like Newman. He’s constantly cleaning the inside of the machine, replacing parts, finding new parts that need replacing in the course of doing that.

The costs add up. The machines themselves cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars into the thousands based on their age and rarity. Financing repairs for broken machines adds to the cost, not to mention the cost of space needed to keep the cabinets.

But White says not to mistake him for being wealthy just because he collects pinball machines.

“There were other things that I sacrificed so I could buy pinball machines,” White said.

Freeman jokingly described the makeup of the group as being a bunch of “doughy, middle-aged white guys. But collecting pinball is not out of the means of its youngest member, 22-year old college student Brad Linden.

Linden learned about the group through a Google newsgroup. He’s played pinball since he was young and had a job at Pinball Pete’s in Ann Arbor. He has a pinball tattoo on his arm featuring two flippers and a ball.

 

As a student at the University of Michigan, Linden says he may not have as much money as some other members of the league, but he’s found good deals on games that didn’t need a lot of work.

 

Linden says despite the difference in their ages, he gets along just fine with the other members of the DPL, because they share a common interest.

So how does the DPL choose members? White explained the screening process in five words.

“Are you a regular guy?”

He said they simply meet with potential members and find out more about them. White says the league is more like a big group of friends than anything. The biggest requisite to entry is that members have their own collection of to use when it’s their turn to host league night. Members have to have five different working pins along with a sixth backup in case a machine breaks down during league play.

In Muglia’s basement on league night, Doug Dabkowski has brought his sons to league night as guests. His son Stephen, wearing a “The Devil Wears Prada” band T-shirt, is waiting for his turn to use the World Poker Tour machine.

Sometimes instead of throwing a baseball around with his sons, Dabkowski plays a few games of pinball with them. Dabkowski hopes that his own collection of favorite pinball machines will stay in the family.

Despite the requirements, there is a hard limit in the league of 25 players due to space restrictions. But they hope to one day expand and possibly form a second league.

White and Freeman said the next step for them is to have a local pinball show. Kosmal has organized it and plans to have one the weekend after the Fourth of July at Oakland University.

The DPL is not unique. White based their setup on an existing one, that of the Chicago Pinball Mafia.

“You’ve just stumbled into 25 guys in Detroit who play pinball all the time, and it’s kind different and kooky,” Freeman says. “But it’s a national thing.”

Pinball leagues like theirs exist around the country: small groups of people dedicated to their hobby, playing daily while the world more and more forgets about pinball.

In the last decade, pinball manufacture has seen a sharp decline. League co-founder Mick McDonald says in 2000, pinball company Williams tried to save pinball, to make it more relevant again, by introducing Pinball 2000, a marriage of pinball gameplay and video game graphics. However, the machine flopped, and Williams left the pinball industry. Today there is only one company, Stern, still producing new pinball machines.

Freeman says kids today are growing up in the video game era. Everyone in league agrees: video games don’t have the same tactile, physical appeal of pinball. Only in pinball can you physically shake the machine to try and nudge the ball into a slot. Only with a real pin can the ball hop off the play field and jump a gate if it picks up enough speed. Munn says there’s a randomness in pinball you don’t get with video games.

“When you play the game, you’re playing against God and Isaac Newton,” Dabkowski says.

Kosmal says that computer games that imitate pinball completely miss the point for this reason. “Would you rather drive a real car or play a game of you driving car?”

He says that pinball’s unique in that every game is different, while video games boil down to the same action over and over again.

“There’s more skill involved in pinball, and more satisfaction when you’re successful,” Linden says.

“Pinball is never the same game,” White says. “You may know every bounce, but you never know when the bounce’ll be different.”

Though everyone in the league can relax and have fun on league night, there is a concern that pinball machines “in the wild” are an endangered species.

The proliferation of home video game consoles and the evaporation of neighborhood arcades only hasten pinball’s disappearance. Some of the DPL members are worried that pinball might fade from the public consciousness. Freeman believes that for the next 15 years or so, pinball will maintain a passionate following. But in 40 years, there may not be a league.

“If it hasn’t gone to the dumpster to be thrown out, it’ll have a small culture following it,” Freeman said.

Dabkowski looks even further into the future. “In 100 years, pinball machines are basically going to be in museums. It’ll be a lost art.”

 

There’s an arcade in Metro Detroit that the league players say is “the last great arcade in Michigan.” But they can’t help but complain about how run down the place is.

Twelve machines line one wall of the last great arcade: mostly newer machines based on popular films and TV shows like The Dark Knight or Family Guy. The walls are marked with bold blue stripes like a bowling alley, unpainted since the 70s. The smell of cigarette smoke hangs thick in the air. Each section of carpet has its own mystery stain, like a scar from days past, when the owners didn’t care enough to clean up the beer or vomit and instead let it be ground into the carpet. The ceiling has tarps strung up in places to catch leaks, to keep water off of the games. In another spot, a half full plastic basin with a couple empty beer cans floating in it catches rain droplets that infiltrate the roof.

The machines themselves are dirty and often broken. The face of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the play field of the Terminator 3 machine is stained and nearly unrecognizable. Two of the lights on the Addams Family machine light up, leaving the play field dark. On the Pirates of the Caribbean machine, a ball hangs on the field, trapped by a swinging gate that has rusted shut. IT sits, abandoned, mid-play. There is a man who makes sure the machines are in working order at the arcade, but only working insofar as they take quarters.

This is what the pinball enthusiasts call the last great arcade.

At the end of league night the scores are tallied. A few guys practice or play for fun after league play has ended. The DPL members head out to their cars and go their separate ways, all around the Detroit area. Some have driven from Ann Arbor to Macomb Township just for league night.

For one night a month, pinball lives on.

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