Monday, April 22, 2024

How the Long Beach Pinball League drives business, friendship, and connection

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Tuesday nights at Wrigley’s Long Beach Beer Lab—the OG location; not their newly minted Zaferia location—make the space seemingly divided into two very different vibes: You have the entry point, greeted by what has always felt like Beer Lab’s original home, the staircase to the right leading to upstairs dining; cool, rather calm, collected. And on the left, their expanded area, which on Tuesdays, is booming with bright lights, the constant pings and clinks of metal balls and computer noises, and the seemingly endless chatter and cheer of the Long Beach Pinball League.

Yes, the Long Beach Pinball League—and it is an organization that not only interconnects budding and professional pinball enthusiasts alike, but also drives local business on nights that are typically slow and connects people with newly minted friendships.

Even more, its varying backgrounds of members—from Gen Zers who have never played pinball before to a Top-15-in-the-State player who has been playing for decades—it does something almost unthinkable in our post-pandemic, nearly pure-digital world: It physically brings people together to play a game that is as tangible as it is deeply visceral.

So, what exactly is the Long Beach Pinball League—and how the hell did they get all these pinball machines?

“We have at least some 45 people playing every week,” said organizer and founder Tom Walker, who runs the league with his charming, always-taking-care-of-players wife Jessica. “It gets pretty crowded in here considering this game is one that is largely coincidence and random physics combined.”

Tom gestures to over 10 pinballs that are strewn in the Beer Lab’s easternmost edge, each harkening to various points of pop culture: A Pro Edition of Stern Pinball’s Dr. No, Sean Connery’s James Bond happily plastered on its side or another Stern Pro Edition, that of Godzilla. There’s odes to Stranger Things and Guardians of the Galaxy. And then there’s odes to horror icons like Elvira and Jaws—the latter of which is, shockingly, not old.

“That’s actually Gonzo’s newest machine,” Walker said, pointing toward the elaborate game which has chum buckets, mechanical fins, odes to Amity Island, and a Jaws which will pop out from its center.

And Walker is referring to Gonzalo Martinez, who allows part of his private collection to be featured inside the Beer Lab for the league’s enjoyment. Will you find his coveted 2016 Stern Pinball Ghostbusters machine on the floor? No. That machine—which has been sold-out and is a fan favorite worldwide that can fetch $13,000 in some sales—is kept at home.

“Gonzo maintains each and every one so there is no question for players that they’ll be playing on machines that tuned’n’ready to play to their fullest—that’s why our league is so popular,” Walker said. “That makes the teams not only happy but also ups their desire to compete.”

Nostalgia, friendships, and connection made the Long Beach Pinball League come to life

To hear Tom talk about pinball is to hear someone truly speak about something they’ve always wanted to include in their life—even through the tumultuous time where tangible arcade games have dwindled into near non-existence.

“We grew up in the ’90s in Newport with this joint called the Fun Zone,” Walker said. “And then we watched arcades slowly die—or, y’know, become less and less accessible than they once were. When we moved up to Oregon, it was a bit different: There were pinball machines at nearly every bar, there were bar arcades.”

Upon return to SoCal, the Walkers tried to replicate their pinball access in Oregon using a pinball map, only to find themselves often driving an hour sometimes to a machine that either didn’t exist or was broken or…

Hence why Gonzo and the Walkers, joined by the league, make a perfect pair. And since launching in 2022, they are now at the very tail end of Season 9, with Season 10 open for signups and kicking off April 2.

On top of this, the league is a boom for local business—and not just the Beer Lab: Each week, while the Lab closes at 10PM and they are kicked out, the Walkers organize drink and food specials with surrounding joints like PBS Pub to assure the players can continue keeping up their spirits post-pinball.

“I think one of the most beautiful thing about this specific league is how everyone always returns back here and stays well beyond the tournament,” Jessica said. “Everyone has their own individual story and there are people who definitely play elsewhere but they will always be here—Glenn, right over there, comes down from L.A. every week. Then there’s people who started here and they’ve blossomed.”

That is the case of Destiny Stewart, a Long Beach local who moved here in the pandemic and discovered the league online—with absolutely zero interest in pinball.

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“I had not one desire in playing pinball,” Stewart said. “But then a friend took me to Vegas to a place called Player 1 [an arcade bar] and they had a ton of pinball machines and lucky enough, the week I came back was when I discovered this. I figured I might as well join because it would not only be a good way to meet people but better connect with Long Beach after the pandemic.”

The result? A series of new friendships, better connection to her neighborhood, and a deeper knowledge of what makes Long Beach, well, Long Beach.

Long Beach Pinball League is part of an international community

Dennis Eichhorn, a Costa Mesa Resident who won seasons 5 and 8 in the Long Beach Pinball League, is a player that has been dedicated to the game for decades—and a proud member of the International Flipper Pinball Association.

Players who join the Long Beach Pinball League are automatically entered into the association as well as automatically input into its ranking system, where every single person competing in a formal league on the planet can find their scores amid 100,000 players across 45 countries.

“Based upon their system, there’s a ranking and a rating and based upon those two things, they figure out where you rank as a player,” Eicchorn said. “It’s a really cool thing to have because I’ve been playing pinball for quite a while.”

Beginning at Pinballz in Austin, Eicchorn joined his first league—and with it, learned a way to play pinball that has forever changed the way he approached the game.

Even more, Eicchorn has noticed the increase in not just participation but the wide array of ages in those who come to compete—and it is that very presence that is the powerful side of something as whimsical as pinball.

“There’s something definitely different about being physically present in pinballing versus digital games,” Eicchorn said. “As varied as video games, there’s just something different about pinball: It’s visceral, it’s real, it’s right there. There’s real luck involved as well; it’s truly a dynamical system where, if you miss your shot, there is another random incidence you have to respond to.”

So how does the Long Beach Pinball League work when it comes to playing?

In the words of Tom, “It’s easy: simply sign up or show up to sign in, and you will play five games in what is called a ‘Group Matchplay’ format.”

That means for the first game, you will be randomly assigned to a game with two or three other players (given the size of the Long Beach Pinball League, it is likely you will be on a team of four including yourself).

Whomever comes in last gets to pick the next machine or player order, and the second-to-last-player gets the option they didn’t pick. Third-to-last gets an option to pick their order from the remaining spots.

“For each game you play you are assigned points depending on where you place,” Tom said, who noted that the team reports them when they’ve completed their rounds. “This all gets tracked throughout the season and culminates in the final tournament.”

For those interested in joining the Long Beach Pinball League, including how to play for Season 10 beginning April 2, find out more information here.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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