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October 17, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Loud music, bright lights, frustrated mutters and jubilant fist pumps. This is competitive pinball — a game that requires focus, practice and strategy.
It was a solo game until a new pinball league was launched on Sept. 30 at Gunther’s Games. The arcade contains a plethora of pinball machines, all positioned tantalizingly in a line that, as the league’s president and one of three founding members Robert Ryan says, “makes you want to cry with joy.”
Where: Gunther's Games
When: Every Monday at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: Free membership
Columbia Pinball League’s first meeting exceeded all expectations. “I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough people,” co-founder Adam McKinnie says. But 23 eager gamers showed up ready to play pinball. The founders had expected 16 players at most.
The league kicked off at 7:30 p.m. With cold beers in hand, participants waited their turn as fellow pinballers battled the machines. The crowd exchanged laughs and advice. “Coming here, I fell in love with pinball all over again,” league participant Josh Noble says. “Obviously, all these people feel the same way.”
Ryan is pleased with the result. Previously, pinballers traveled to St. Louis, Kansas City or farther to compete. The only machines found in town were in places such as Shakespeare’s Pizza or The Blue Fugue — certainly not places where a tournament could be held or where several people could play at once. Gunther’s Games’ opening fulfilled a fantasy for Ryan and other passionate players.
Ryan, who noticed the frustratingly high scores of a mysterious player with the initials ZED on machines around Columbia, spotted the name on a scoreboard at a tournament in St. Louis. He tracked down the man behind the moniker, McKinnie, and found a mentor and friend.
McKinnie is ranked 266 out of 14,500 registered players with the International Flipper Pinball Association and competes in larger-scale tournaments such as the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association tournament and the World Championship in Pittsburg. McKinnie and the third co-founder, Aaron Hay, met playing pinball at Eastside Tavern, and Ryan met Hay when the three of them showed up to play at Gunther’s Games’ opening.
Matt Robb, manager of Gunther’s Games, encouraged the league’s launch and even offered to provide trophies for tournaments. CPL is a registered IFPA league, which means members can earn World Pinball Player Ranking points to improve their IFPA ranking and win discounts on pinball machines.
The league is divided into groups determined by each member’s skill level. As one group member plays, the others hang back and watch or talk among themselves until it’s their turn, and the scores of each game are carefully recorded.
“We’re just a couple of guys that like drinking beer and playing pinball,” Ryan says. “We just want people to come out and hang out with us no matter what skill level they’re at, play some pinball, meet new people and have fun."