36 hours, 900 machines, 1 ball: Inside LA’s wild pinball scene

Comic book and pinball hangout Revenge Of in Glassell Park recently hosted a 36-hour-long pinball marathon. Photo by Danielle Chiriguayo/KCRW.

It’s about 4:30 on a Sunday morning on Eagle Rock Boulevard, and the sky is still dark. Birds perched up on nearby trees start to sing and the occasional car drives down through the silent neighborhood. 

But just a few feet away, beyond the glass door of a red-and-black storefront, a cacophony of clangs, beeps, and raucous conversation fill the air, as Angelenos hunker down in fierce competition for the ultimate glory: pinball champion. 

“I've been here for at least five, maybe six hours now … I signed up for a tournament that I thought started at midnight, but actually started at 2 a.m.,” says April O’Neil, a self-described “medium-good” pinballer who’s getting her bearings at a plastic folding table set up in the shop’s back parking lot. It’s her first time at this particular joint and she’s fallen under its spell — the two espresso martinis she drank hours prior feel like a distant memory. 

“I bought a bunch of comic books and maybe I could just add a trophy to that. We'll see. Probably not,” she says. “There's a lot of really good players here.” 

Welcome to Revenge Of, Glassell Park’s resident comic book shop and pinball parlor. The venue is just one part of a booming community of pinball enthusiasts that anyone can plug into at any time — all you need is a pocket full of tokens and a dream. 

On this particular evening, Revenge Of celebrated its two-year anniversary with a 36-hour-long pinball marathon. The scene? Dozens of Angelenos standing shoulder-to-shoulder playing their pinball hearts out while the sun set … and rose … and set again. 

To keep folks in the hot zone, Revenge Of’s 26 machines are on free play — meaning no cash required to play a game. Anyone here has the chance to sign up for pinball competitions and reap the glory. You could knock yourself out at the 2am Pinball Tournament From the Deep — played on a brand new Jaws-themed machine from Stern Pinball. Some pushed through to the 5am Sunrise Strikes Tournament, a knockout challenge where opponents must edge out their competition without falling in the standings.

Taylor Wong arrived right around midnight and played til the wee hours of the morning. He got his start in pinball in his 30s, when he realized the partying thing wasn’t his speed anymore. Wong’s also been part of the Revenge Of pinball league since its inception five seasons ago.

Pinball leagues aren’t exclusive to Revenge Of either. Scores of dedicated Angelenos crowd the halls of other spots around LA, including Walt’s Bar in Eagle Rock and EightyTwo in Downtown LA. 

“I think pinball has become the most inclusive activity that I've come across,” Wong explains. “I'm used to being part of communities where it's all about who you know, what you know. But pinball has always been like, anybody's cool enough to do it.” 

“I’m a pinball enthusiast,” Wong says. “But would I say I’m a pro? No!”

Taylor Wong focuses during the 5am Sunrise Strikes Tournament. Spoiler alert: He’s already racked up one strike and is losing this round. Photo by Danielle Chiriguayo/KCRW.

A league of their own

Like any competitive hobby or sport, there’s an entire subset of the community that is serious and skilled enough to compete in the big leagues, a.k.a, the International Flipper Pinball Association. Described as the “governing body for pinball as a competitive sport,” the IFPA hosts local, national, and international competitions. There’s even a global ranking system and cash prizes — think tens, and sometimes, more than a hundred thousand dollars. 

Serious local flipper Ryan Gratzer credits the IFPA — and its competitions — for shepherding in a new generation of pinball enthusiasts. 

“There’d always been pinball tournaments here and there. But as silly as it sounds, gaining points from a tournament is really attractive to a lot of people,” he explains.

The LA native grew up with a machine set-up in his bedroom, while family friends had machines in their homes. 

In 2008, he helped create the Pinball Map, an open-source website and app where anyone can post where the latest and greatest pinball machines are popping up. Today, he counts more than 900 machines in the LA area alone; Pinball Map currently lists a total of 9,868 locations and 40,011 machines.

Gratzer says he’s seen the pinball world explode. As he puts it, a decade ago, there was only one spot in LA with more than 10 machines. Now, there’s at least a dozen.

A glimpse of the hundreds of pinball machines located throughout Southern California. Screenshot via Pinball Map.

Not your daddy’s pinball 

“[Manufacturers] are starting to incorporate almost video gameplay aspects to these machines,” explains Joe Kuntz, co-owner and head of pinball operations at Revenge Of. “They start bringing game producers. They start bringing in animators. They have these big screens on it that advance the gameplay beyond just the ball bouncing around completing circuits and adding scores up.”

Today’s pinball machines are full of computer chips, LCD screens, and other features that create an immersive experience for players. 

“Players can scan into the games they're playing, track their progress, track high scores, earn achievements and badges, and participate in digital leaderboards,” Kuntz explains. 

Pinball’s come a long way since the game’s earliest years. In 1939, the game was banned in Los Angeles. It was infamously labeled as being used for “petty gambling” and considered a game of chance, with longtime LA Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz posing for photos of himself smashing pinball machines seized in law enforcement raids. The ban wasn’t overturned until 1974, when the Supreme Court of California concluded that the game was one of not only amusement, but “of skill and science.” 

 A sense of community

While dominating leaderboards and racking up the highest scores is an incentive for some, the pinball experience is also about the people. 

O’Neil traces her assimilation into pinball culture to the mid-2010s, when EightyTwo splashed onto the scene. Almost overnight, she was hooked and found herself going several times a week. 

“I grew up in the generation of people who played video games. We had N64s and Nintendos and all that stuff. Then you add a sort of analog control element to it, where you can shove a machine, you can add a bit of video game to it,” she explains. “It's just really addictive.” 

Plus, she says, it helps that pinball is home to a community of like-minded people who love a playful challenge.

“I've got a girl group where we call ourselves the ‘pin babes,’” she says. “You've got gamer friends. You've got foodies. Everybody has their niche, and it's really nice to just kind of have this group of friends that are nicely competitive.”