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SC pinball scene grows ahead of state championship and ‘huge resurgence’ in US

VIDEO: Palmetto Pinball Club Sets Stage For State Championship

Palmetto Pinball Club member David Kyle talks about the game of pinball, and the State Championship tournament being held this weekend at their club on Devine Street in Shandon.
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Palmetto Pinball Club member David Kyle talks about the game of pinball, and the State Championship tournament being held this weekend at their club on Devine Street in Shandon.

Patrick Pietras had a good year playing pinball. The points he racked up in the silver ball game, the lights that flashed as he made the right rolls, all that played into his 2018 season being better than most. But what truly made the year was watching the growth of the pinball scene in South Carolina.

“We’ve attracted a ton of new people,” said Pietras, who’s part of the Palmetto Pinball Club. “It’s been fun for me to watch a lot of the new players really start getting into the competitive realm and working on the games and improving their games.”

That explosion in South Carolina’s pinball community is culminating as the 6th annual International Flipper Ball Association’s South Carolina Championship Series is set to take place Saturday in Pelzer, South Carolina.

Through 2018, the Palmetto State’s best pinball players challenged each other in IFPA sanctioned events, racking up points in the ranking system. Last year, 200 South Carolina players partook in official tournaments, Pietras said. The top 16 players battle each other in South Carolina’s pinball finals.

The winner in South Carolina has the chance to compete in the IFPA’s March finale in Las Vegas where $62,000 in cash and prizes will be up for grabs in the bracket style tournament.

While it may sound like fierce competitors are duking it out, Pietras said the the community of players are good sports. Still, as the tournaments narrow to crowning the state’s pinball royalty, “The top ranked players take it pretty seriously,” Pietras said.

The growth in South Carolina pinball is reflected nationally, according to Zach Sharpe, Vice President of the IFPA.

In 2006 the IFPA sanctioned 52 tournaments across the U.S.. Last year the organization sanctioned over 5,000 events.

“The sport is going through a huge resurgence right now,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe, who is one of the top 10 ranked players in the world, said that tension between players exists in the moment of bouts, but when those games are done it’s back to being friends.

“I’ve been a player since the early 90s, and I’ve had friends through pinball for 20 years now,” Sharpe said. “In the moment it’s a very competitive thing but in between balls or games it’s a very friendly vibe.”

Where Columbia players go to hone their skills and partake in monthly tournaments is Firefly Toys and Games. After a few years of bouncing around, playing at whatever spot that had some machines and having their own clubhouse with about a dozen machines, the Palmetto Pinball Club found a new home when Firefly move to it’s current Irmo location and built an arcade styled room, equipping it with more than a dozen machines. Pietras calls Firefly’s pinball room “premiere” not just for South Carolina but premiere for the Southeast, he said.

On an average night eight to ten players may show up for causal practice or just to enjoy the game, Pietras said. During sanctioned bouts, usually about 20 to 30 people compete. As part of the growth in South Carolina, monthly tournaments have started in Greenville and Charleston.

“The tournament scene in South Carolina has evolved quite a bit,” Pietras said. “It’s people hanging out and having a good time but playing pinball pretty seriously.”

If a non-pinballer wanted to get involved, it’s a welcoming crew as Pietras described. One key to being good at pinball is knowing the variety of machines and how to score points on individuals games. But the main tenant of pinball to Pietras is this — “It’s all about being able to catch the ball on your flipper and cradle it”

Starting out, people don’t realize how much control a player can have over the ball if they know how to catch and release on the flippers, Pietras said.

“It changes the game from something that’s random and fun to something that’s controllable and much more fun,” Pietras said.

Bringing the IFPA championship title from Las Vegas to South Carolina “would be absolutely huge” to Pietras. But he’s realistic about his chance of being the player to hoist it into town. His chance of winning his own state tournament is slim, he said, though he ranks 5th in SC.

But one Palmetto State player, Fred Richardson, may give the IFPA title a run, Pietras believes.

Richardson is the top player in South Carolina and in the top 50 of the IFPA rankings. To beat Richardson, Pietras said he would have to have a really good day and his opponent have a really bad day and that’s not likely to happen.

Even without much of a shot, the love of the game outweighs the competition to Pietras particularly when it comes to new people getting into pinball.

“I like to see people play and just get better,” he said. “I love watching someone good play.”

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.