By Kenna Beban

The Butter Ballers. The Jackpots. The Pinbabes. These are all teams in the Pinball NYC League.

They meet once a week in Brooklyn bars to compete, fingers on the flippers and eyes on that silver ball in a battle of man-vs-machine. They’re the city’s finest competitive pinball players. And they’re all after one thing: 

“The objective,” said Tim Sexton, “was to not beef. And in fact, to boom it.”

Booming, in pinball, is to do well. To make that crazy shot, set off the flashing lights, send the game into wizard mode. To beef is to do poorly. When the ball hits one of those mushroom-shaped bumpers and ricochets back towards the player, past the flippers and down the drain. You’ve lost the ball. You’ve beefed it. 

Tim Sexton playing pinball Photo: Gene X Hwang

Tim, 29, isn’t part of the NYC league, but he’s well known. He’s a world-ranked pinball champion. He’s designed games for Stern Pinball, Inc. And he organized the NYC Pinball Championships, where many Brooklyn pinballers will be this weekend, fighting for a chance to be named the city’s greatest player.

But Tim didn’t really play pinball as a kid. He caught his first glimpse of competitive pinballing on YouTube, when he was nineteen, and learned that it was far from a game of chance. 

“I saw how people could really take control and pick exactly what they wanted to do,” he said. In the videos, they rocked and slapped the machines, slowed the ball to a halt, called shots as they were making them. These guys were good. And he wanted to be just like them.

“It unlocked that world of understanding,” he said. “There are rules to everything that happens, and there’s structures to it.” Each game has unique rules for how points are tallied, extra challenges, jackpots and easter eggs. But one thing always stays the same. 

“Everything that the ball does is determined by physics and geometry,” Tim said. “It can’t really cheat you.” It’s something of an equalizer. Everyone starts at zero, and everyone plays until the ball ends. 

“You always feel like there’s a chance for you to win the game, or score better than your opponent,” he said. Even in a pinball competition, you’re not really playing against an opponent; you’re playing against the machine. 

“People don’t feel like they need to withhold information from players, or tips, or advice,” Tim said. “It’s all fair to have everyone get better against the machine, and the machine ultimately gives you your score.” 

Photo: Joe Ciaravino

That makes pinball players a supportive crowd. And why people in Tim’s generation are getting into the game.

Since its heyday in the 70s and depression in the 90s, pinball’s on the upswing. Food and drink businesses are using it to draw in customers, and people are attracted to the mechanical game in a digital world, the excuse to socialize, the easygoing community.

The resurgence has been especially successful in New York, where the local league has 30 teams around the city, with 15 out of 21 host bars concentrated in Brooklyn. The teams are made up of six to ten players, more social than the stay-at-home video gamers, younger than the nostalgics who grew up in arcades. The league has been in place for over ten years, getting stronger as more bars welcome pinball into their establishments. 

“It’s really only something you can pull off in a big city that has several locations with lots of pinball machines,” Tim said. “And, a really enthusiastic player base.” 

Brooklyn is home to, perhaps, the most robust pinball scene in the country. But its monthly tournaments didn’t attract players from outside the city. And the world championships were all the way in Pittsburgh.

 “Obviously the demand is there,” Tim said. So, he and three pinball friends decided to form the New York City Pinball Championships.

After two years of a delay due to COVID, 2022 will be the competition’s big comeback. The grand championship is this weekend, from August 19th – 21st, in Brooklyn’s Industry City.

“We have a larger facility, we have more games,” Tim said, “we have longer times to qualify.” And, of course, “we have a lot more pinball machines for the free play area,” 11 of which are brand new games that came out within the past year. 

Their goal isn’t just to attract the world’s best pinball players (though they’re doing that, too). It’s to introduce people to another way to find community, help local businesses, scratch a competitive itch. To introduce them to the type of pinball they fell in love with. Pinball, the sport. 

“You actually hear people rooting and cheering when something good happens,” Tim said. “That atmosphere when you’ve got multiple people watching, and spectating and cheering is exciting.” The players like it too. “They’re happy to see that the cool stuff they do isn’t just for them.”

It’s for the pros, yes. But anyone can play. All you need is two flippers, a plunger, and a man-vs-machine mindset. 

“Everything is laid out ready,” Tim said. “All you have to do is hit a start button and go.”

Kenna Beban is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Bushwick. 

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