Date: November 22nd - 24th, 2013
Report by Wayne Johns
This review is not going to be like any of the highly detailed, informative and professional reviews normally produced by Martin. Rather this is more my experience of playing in a PAPA-sanctioned event for the first time and my thoughts and experiences as it went on.
To introduce myself briefly, I have been playing competitive pinball for just over 2 years now, in the UK Pinball League, the UK Pinball Open, and various other events around the UK with a little success along the way. I was in Orlando with my partner Julie who also tags along to all of the competitions in the UK but doesn’t take it anywhere near as seriously as me, and tends to spend more time chatting to the usual suspects at each of the shows!
I had begun to wonder just how I would fare against those players I had watched competing live online at some of the larger events abroad, so I promised myself that this was the year I was going to see for myself.
I had a weekend trip over to Belgium for the BOP in October and found that the standard of play was not dissimilar to that I had experienced in the UK. This time though I was off to The USA, specifically Orlando to compete in the Southern Pinball Festival. Obviously this would not be a weekend trip so a fortnight’s holiday was booked which would culminate in entry to the SPF.
The pinball related leg of the trip was all booked online through the SPF website, and any further questions I had were quickly answered by Donny White, either via e-mail or Facebook.
The show was to be held at the Crowne Plaza Universal, and those who booked through the SPF website got a preferential rate of $105 per night (plus 7.5% tax).
I had booked two VIP packages for the SPF at $70 each. For this you got entry for each of the 3 days, a personalised key chain, a SPF 2013 T-shirt, a VIP lanyard, a 2013 poster, and 3 entries into the competition, as well as some flyers for various pinball suppliers.
Unfortunately when we came to collect our packages on the opening day we were told that the posters had been delayed in printing but they would be posted on to us (I hope they figured in the international rates). Time will tell if they arrive.
Although the show officially opened at 7pm on Friday night, I couldn’t resist sticking my head in on the Thursday night to see how the set up was going and to try and get some photos.
We spoke to Lonnie who despite obviously being busy was very friendly and welcoming, explaining how the show would work and what was going to be showing up. We were even offered some of the pizza that had been bought for the volunteers even before my offer of assistance was declined.
With the show due to open at 7pm we headed down to the room at about 6:45 only to find it packed solid and every machine being played. This was very different to every other show I have ever been to as they are normally running late with last minute hitches, but not this show.
Being in Orlando the hotel is obviously used to hosting events in extreme heat, and the room was a pleasant temperature for the whole weekend. To gain entry you either showed your VIP pass as purchased beforehand, or paid on the door at $20 per day or $45 for all three days.
This got you a coloured wrist band which, as another nice surprise, got you a 25% discount on all food and drink sold at the bar for the whole weekend. This soon added up to a significant saving, with the cheapest bottled beer normally $6 and a burger $10, although the menu did cater for a more formal meal too.
The room had the seven competition machines at one end, all set up with overhead and score cameras provided by PAPA who would be broadcasting live both the end of qualifying and the knockout finale. The rest of the machines ran around the outside walls with a central column of back-to-back machines.
The tournament games were:
The full list of electronic games available for free play was:
The electromechanical games were:
Plus: Hyperball and Minecraft (video game)
I was surprised at just how many old EM machines were present and how well they played, although they were not played as much as the more modern machines despite, in a lot of instances, being better maintained than their more modern counterparts.
After a quick look around, I was keen to understand how the tournament actually worked.
For $10 you got 3 tickets which allowed you 3 games on the competition machines. Only your best score on any given machine counted, and you counted your 5 best points scores over the machines. But most importantly, you could have as many entries as you wanted, or could afford.
This came as a little bit of a shock, as it meant that even with the 3 entries as part of the VIP package it would take a further $20 in entry fees just to play each machine once.
There were rows of chairs behind each machine and you simply sat in line, scooting along as you got closer to the front. When you finally reached the front you handed one of your precious tickets over to the scorer and started your game.
If you beat your previous score on that machine (or it was your first score) you raised your arm and the scorer wrote the score on a piece of paper, which at some point got handed to someone on the front desk - who was also selling game tickets - who would then enter the scores.
This meant that there was a delay in the scores and the actual standings being displayed of about 20 minutes, or more at busy times.
The top scorer got 100 points, second 90pts, third 85pts, 4th 84pts, and the other places descending accordingly. So it really paid to get a top score, with the extra points differential between places.
So to start with I bought 15 tickets ($50) to add to our existing 6 (3 each). I had been told prior to arrival from a number of sources that the machines are setup extremely hard with tilts mega-sensitive and outlanes wide open, so it was with some trepidation that I got in line to play Air Aces first.
I plunged the ball and as it rolled around the top I gave the machine a little nudge to guide it towards the saucer, and promptly tilted the machine. The next 2 balls I got a feel for what could be done and how the machine was playing, so immediately got back in line for another go and put up a respectable score.
My games on Joker Poker and 2001 went much better, with me able to put up decent scores on my first attempts.
AC/DC did not go quite as well, as it was so much faster compared to the previous three older games. Or that was my excuse. I had another couple of games without much improvement, and then did just as poorly on Metallica.
I had one ticket left for the night, so thought I may as well have a go on Medieval Madness and put up (what I thought) a reasonable score of 46m. Bowen Kerins was taking scores at this point and I was more than happy when he congratulated me on my score and said it was unlikely that I’d have to play MM again with that score. It’s just as well there were double doors in and out, as my head wouldn’t have fit through otherwise.
So as midnight came and went my scores had me placed 8th overnight. With the top 16 qualifying for the A division finals and a big juicy cheque, and the next 8 qualifying for the B division, I was in a very optimistic mood heading into the second day.
It was going to be a long day. Qualifying was from 9am through 'til midnight – 15 hours solid of playing and queuing.
I headed down to the hall at about 10:30. As I entered the room, the main thing that was apparent was that it was significantly busier than the previous night, with many more children and women present playing the non-tournament games, but also that the queues for the competition games contained the same faces as the night before.
In fact, across the whole weekend I rarely saw any of the ‘tournament players' playing non-tournament games, prior to them getting knocked out. Although I did see a very well-known player walk up to a machine play a single ball then just walk away, leaving ball 2 ready to shoot while he went and started another game on another machine.
This is a big personal gripe of mine at the shows when someone - usually a child - loses interest and walks away mid-game. It was not something I expected to see from a regular player, let alone a top competitive player.
The other major gripe I have at shows is starting a second game straight after draining without looking around to see if anyone is waiting, or playing multi-player games by yourself. I witnessed both of these from ‘tournament players’ on the Sunday after they had been knocked out of, or didn’t qualify for, the heads-up games. These things are somewhat excusable from someone who doesn’t play pinball a lot or doesn’t understand what’s going on, but not from seasoned players. Or is it just arrogance?
Anyway, I digress, rant over.
As the day wore on, I had only occasionally looked at the tournament games, preferring instead to explore the rest of the games on free play, as well as look at the vendor stands and head towards the lecture theatre where Brian Dominy and Gary Stern were speaking.
All of the seminars can be found on PAPA's website at: papa.org/videos/seminars.
Back in the main hall, there was Steve from Pinball Refinery who had brought a modded Metallica Pro with him which looked simply fantastic.
This was actually only there on the Saturday, being replaced with another ruby red The Wizard of Oz 75th Anniversary Limited Edition on the Sunday (making three in total).
There was Art from Comet Pinball who I never got to talk to, but was selling various LEDs.
But that was it. Two stalls, one of which sold only LEDs and the other was mainly about modding various games.
This was a shame as I was specifically looking at picking up a few small items from some of the bigger US suppliers for friends which would normally be prohibitive due to postage costs, but they weren’t there.
After a meal, I returned to the tournament area about 8pm to find I had dropped down to 16th, so I decided to purchase some more tickets.
Star Trek was having very long ball times, with many players simply trapping the ball and letting features time out before starting the next and doing exactly the same again. I understand the idea behind this, as the multiball earned by completing all six modes scores so significantly, but it hardly makes for interesting watching, or a test of skill.
Personally, until the code on Star Trek is amended to take this into account, I don’t think it should be used in competition. I discussed this with a number of people and it was suggested it was there because it was new - not really a reason to have it in the competition, in my opinion.
So after a game of Star Trek were I didn’t post a particularly high score, I decided that the two games of the seven I would be dropping were Star Trek and Metallica. I would concentrate on improving my scores on the other tables, and try and save some money.
I played a few games on the older machines without really improving much and saw my position fall down the rankings, as people constantly played a game and then got back in line to play it again.
My best score on Joker Poker actually came after I walked away from the machine after my last ball, only to be told that I had got an extra ball and it could be played. I got a further 2 extra balls and set my top score. Something which would not be allowed in UK competitions I have played in.
I was not having much luck improving my scores on AC/DC or the older machines, so despite my previous good (and only) score on Medieval Madness I decided to have another go for a change.
As it turned out, it proved to be one of two pivotal games I played in the final hour of the qualifying.
I was having a good game when I found myself on 50m with two balls locked ready for multiball, the castle gate raised and ready to destroy the fourth castle for 10m, and the ball trapped on my right flipper. Destroying the castle for 10m would give me 3rd highest score and virtually guarantee me a place in the B Division finals. However a multiball, where I would be almost guaranteed to destroy the castle as well as score a couple of jackpots and castle hits, would have got me the first or second high score and seen me in the A Division.
I’m sure you all know what’s coming next.
I changed my mind mid-shot and ended up hitting the stand-up target separating the 2 choices and drained SDTM. I still improved my score, but by nowhere near as much as I could have done. I was kicking myself for being greedy and had to leave the room and go outside to have a cigarette.
When I returned, I had dropped down to 23rd but with nearly 20pts between me and the person in 25th place, so I still felt pretty confident of reaching the B Division. However people were improving their scores all the time, and just as significantly not just people around me in the overall standings. Those players who had already all but qualified were playing their weaker scoring tables to use as practice in case they got picked in the head-to-head, which was also driving down my scores on all my tables except Medieval Madness.
With 15 minutes to go I was tied on 25th with 4 other people. I knew that I just needed one good game to lift me an extra 2 or 3 points to get me into B Division, or maybe even a brilliant game to get me into A Division.
As it happens I decided to try and improve on Joker Poker, just as one of the guys I was tied with, Salem Ayoob, had the same thought. I think we each played 3 or 4 games one after the other with neither of us improving our scores, before we both decided to give it up. I went to have a look at the scores and I could see that my worse scoring table of the five I had decided to concentrate on was AC/DC, where I had scored 36m or so.
As I stepped up to play my final game of the night - and potentially the tournament - I gave my ticket a kiss as I handed it to the scorer, took a deep breath, and pressed start.
By this time, PAPA had been broadcasting live for a number of hours and I was aware of a number of people in the UK who had been following my progress (or decline) and posting messages of encouragement. Although the featured table was not AC/DC, due to the positioning of the camera along the tables I was still front of the screen with everyone watching my every move.
I knew that if I improved my score to over 40m I would break the tie and move into the qualifying position. I had a decent first two balls, and then got a multiball on my third which took my score to 46m, although I drained stupidly because I had been keeping track of my score rather than what was happening on the table. I was still confident I had done enough to qualify, and after recording my score I remember pumping my fist as I walked right across the camera to take another nicotine break outside.
When I came back I could hardly believe it. Remember I mentioned earlier about the scoring being done with bits of paper and there was a delay? It turns out I had actually dropped to 27th and a score of 50m on AC/DC would have qualified me, not my 46m.
So for my first US PAPA-style tournament, I failed at the final post.
I was left feeling deflated. I had spent more than I had intended spending on entries. I had come so, so close to qualifying for the B Division finals, but in the end just hadn’t quite made it, and was shattered.
The following day brought the finals of the A & B Divisions. I had every intention of watching them and reporting on them (video of the final can be seen on the PAPA site, with the full results on the IFPA site) but in the end decided just to play pinball myself and spent a good number of hours playing the old EMs with no chance of entering your name, or recording your score or getting IFPA points. Just me and the machine, perhaps the way it should be. But then again, why would a pinball machine need a score board if it wasn’t about beating your previous score, or someone else’s?
Looking back, I have a number of observations about witnessing and entering my first PAPA tournament, some good, some bad, but all my own opinions whether you agree or disagree.
There is virtually no crossover between the casual ‘buy a ticket on the day and take the kids’ player and the tournament players. To me this seems self-defeating of all the work PAPA is doing to try and promote pinball if only a select number of players are competing in all of the televised tournaments, and the casual player is too intimidated to enter, whether by the standard of opposition, or by the cost and time commitment required.
The cost of trying to qualify is substantial. The number of players who I didn’t see leave the line all day Friday and Saturday was significant, but without this kind of qualifying there would be no prize pot to play for.
The recording of the scores was a little dated and lead to some delays, but it did work. PDAs/phones/tablets would definitely have speeded things up a lot.
There seemed very few staff/helpers/engineers, compared to the UK competitions I have been to.
Those people that were scoring, taking entrance money, taking competition money, entering scores, and fixing machines all worked very hard the whole weekend.
The format of unlimited entries must surely put a lot of people off. It also reduces the chance of someone stepping up and qualifying based on a couple of good games. Personally I think this is bad. The whole appeal of playing against the top players is that you have a chance of beating them head-to-head, but if you know that they can go and have another dozen, or more games to try and beat your score then what’s the point?
If there was a limited number of entries allowed, or even just a single entry per table, the top players will still be there or thereabouts at the top of all the tournaments - that’s what makes them top players - but you’d also see more of the casual players in and around, which could in turn encourage others to enter and try. The obvious downside to this is little or no money generated from entries for big cash prizes. Would the ‘top players’ travel for such events?
The standard of play I saw in The US compared to the UK is pretty much the same, with a couple of exceptions. There are two or three players I saw competing over the weekend who I consider better than anyone I have seen playing in Europe, but not necessarily the usual suspects. The standard of the next level down is probably better in Europe than the US.
I probably failed to qualify due to a lack of experience in how the competition works, pacing myself, and the wrong strategy in playing tables. I certainly don’t feel that I was outclassed or embarrassed myself with my play - my LOWEST score on Medieval Madness was 46m (9th), my ONLY score on 2001 was my recorded score (25th overall), I only played Air Aces twice - my very first two games - and had the 21st overall score.
There were over 1,500 tournament games played creating a prize pot of $6,500 (of which PAPA contributed $1000) split between only 81 players, some of who played only one or two games and gave the remainder of their tickets to friends or partners.
Overall I certainly don’t regret entering the tournament and had a great time, but I’m not certain that I’d rush to enter another too soon, especially on a family holiday as it is a whole weekend of commitment in both time and money. It also makes me appreciate even more all of those people who take their newer machines to the show in such great condition, those people who record the scores - whether for an hour or all weekend - and those special people who get the machines back operational when they do occasionally falter, as well as all the ‘behind the scenes’ people who make it all happen months in advance.
It makes me wonder whether it would be possible to run a PAPA style tournament here in the UK, and maybe even get it broadcast like the US competitions. Would there be the interest to enter or do people in the UK just want the trophies and points without the cash?
Maybe we will find out soon.
© Pinball News 2013