In many ways, the future of pinball lives under this roof.
Twice a year the doors open and the greatest pinball players in the world stream into the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (aka PAPA) World Headquarters. Here in the massive 100-year-old warehouse space the best of the best pinball players go head to head to see who is the most talented, most determined, and in some ways, the luckiest pinball player in the world. It is here where the one and only “World Pinball Champion” is crowned.
Both pinball and PAPA have faced near extinction multiple times. Pinball itself was outlawed in New York and other parts of the county in the 1940s. In New York it wasn’t legal until 1976 when a famous court case demonstrated that it was a game of skill not a gambling device. (It stayed illegal in Seattle until recently, because everyone had forgotten the laws were still on the books.) Meanwhile as video games became more popular pinball faded away hitting it’s low in the 1990s. Many manufactures quit producing machines. Ultimately only one company, Stern, was left producing new pinball machines. Meanwhile the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association also hit its low in the 1990s. In 1996 the founder Steve Epstien was exhausted and decided to retire. The PAPA World Championships, which had been the premium pinball competition, simply ceased to exist.
However, the stage was set for a great comeback. A longtime pinball fan and Pittsburgh local Kevin Martin began using his own collection to stage tournaments in Pittsburgh. in 2004 he bought the PAPA name and staged the first new championship in its new Pittsburgh home. Five days after that first revived PAPA competition his entire facility was destroyed by hurricane Ivan. But Martin still had one ball left.
Slowly over time the collection was rebuilt, up to over 500 machines. In 2013 PAPA ran a Kickstarter to begin PAPA TV and begin streaming the tournaments and other pinball events over Twitch. They made three times their 20K goal. In 2013 a new company called Jersey Jack began creating new pinball machines. Over 30,000 pinball players are now ranked by the International Flipper Pinball Association. Pinball was back.
While the PAPA headquarters isn’t generally open to the public, during the twice-yearly pinball competitions anyone is welcome to come play and even compete, in the Rank D division. The next championship is April 5-9, 2017. Who knows, maybe you’re the next “Pinball Wizard.” (Cue song.)