John Jundt grew up with the sport. He cut his chops in high school before polishing his skills on the University of Minnesota’s “amazing” facilities in the mid-’90s. Last year, the Woodbury father of two became one of the state’s top five players.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that Jundt entered — and won — his first competitive pinball tournament. He was hooked — on pinball.
“A lot of people are finding it again,” Jundt said this month while competing at the state championship.
Enthusiasm for the retro arcade games once found in convenience stores and laundromats across the country is resurging as the Twin Cities area maintains a healthy under-the-radar scene in a handful of metro hot spots, including Sun Ray Lanes in St. Paul, Blainbrook Entertainment Center in Blaine and Mortimer’s in south Minneapolis (where Jundt runs a monthly tourney).
“The last few years it’s grown leaps and bounds,” said Paul Madison, a former world champ widely regarded as the state’s best player.
Madison, who won this month’s state tournament and a berth in the International Flipper Pinball Association’s (IFPA) national tourney in Las Vegas, and other pinballers credit the proliferation of organized tournaments and Blainbrook’s commitment to the game with strengthening the local circuit. Over the past five years, the Blaine bowling alley has gone from five machines to nearly 50 — and now hosts a weekly league and two monthly tournaments.
“It’s like that [baseball] movie with Kevin Costner in it — if you build it they will come, and that’s what’s happening,” said Blainbrook co-owner Donny May.
May’s pinball mecca didn’t carry a “Field of Dreams”-sized price tag. But at $4,500 to $5,500 per machine, plus $300 to $500 in monthly maintenance costs, it took a significant investment that his partner initially fought. However, after a few years Blainbrook’s pinball program went from an expensive pet project to a revenue generator.
“It brought in a whole new array of brand‑new clientele for our business,” May said.
Video killed pinball
Although pinball machines have gobbled quarters for decades, the arcade dinosaur neared extinction by the mid- to late-’90s. The rise of home video games rocked the arcade industry, and two of the major pinball manufacturers shuttered by the end of the century. Competitive pinball’s two main governing bodies — the IFPA and the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) — also went on hiatus.
“It was really doom and gloom,” recalled Lloyd Olson, who has run Hopkins’ SS Billiards since the ’70s. “I was starting to stock up on rubber rings and light bulbs because we didn’t know if they’d be available anymore.”
But manufacturer Stern Pinball survived the dark era and, in 2011, was joined by boutique maker Jersey Jack Pinball (for which Olson handles tech support). The IFPA and PAPA have since returned with new ranking systems and sanctioned tourneys worldwide.
Fred Richardson, longtime Twin Cities player and tournament director, recalled shrugging off a certificate he received for a top 100 finish in the IFPA’s World Pinball Player Rankings — known as the “whopper” system — 10 years ago. At the time there were barely 100 registered players, he jokes. Now there are nearly 30,000.
“It created whopper whores — people that just wanted to get their points,” said Richardson, who manages the Brooklyn Park Brunswick. “You’re like, ‘Why? What’s the point?’ But like NASCAR and with golf, it’s very similar in rising up through the ranks.”
Despite Olson’s status as the godfather of Twin Cities pinball, his 45-year-old Hopkins shop is somewhat isolated from the local competitive ring. SS Billiards has a passionate fan base that last year contributed $14,440 toward a customer-led Indiegogo campaign for renovations. But Olson has disavowed the IFPA and PAPA and no longer hosts many tournaments. The pinball dissident claims IFPA and its players sabotaged and manipulated the results of a now-defunct May Day tournament held at SS Billiards.
In response, Olson fired shots at the pinball institutions by creating his own ranking system.
“I was flipping the bird to the other two systems out there,” said Olson, laughing.
Richardson, who founded the May Day tournament in 2005, and others say Olson has burned bridges in the pinball community. Elsewhere, Richardson describes the greater local scene as good, but fractured. He complained of being forced out of events he launched at Blainbrook and Mortimer’s.
“Some of the stupid, ugly politics has made the pinball thing hold itself back, which is frustrating because it doesn’t need to be there,” he said.
Politics aside, players such as Ben Granger tout the local community as a source of fun and friendship. Minnesota’s top-ranked player in 2014, Granger, 37, got serious about pinball after treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, competing in all the regular tournaments and leagues and making an annual trek to Chicago’s Pinball Expo.
“When I think about where I was three or four years ago, this is a really wholesome thing,” Granger said. “This is something kids can do. It’s for everybody, and I love that it’s growing.”
Michael Rietmulder, of Minneapolis, writes about nightlife.