Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.
As we’ve said before, in Sporting Goods Torontoist aims to shine some light on the city’s most alternative and obscure sports teams. So far we’ve seen women who rock and women who roll—unconventional, but indisputable, athletes. Which is why the men of the Toronto Pinball League wonder why we’re talking to them.
“Pinball is as much of a sport as poker. It’s on ESPN, but it’s not a sport,” contends thirty-year-old system administrator Adam Becker, surrounded in a circle of his fellow leaguers. He’s dressed in head-to-toe black, with “World Pinball Championships” emblazoned across his back, and headphones around his neck he uses to “get in the zone.”
Sport has been defined as “an organized, competitive, entertaining, and skillful activity requiring commitment, strategy, and fair play, in which a winner can be defined by objective means,” we learn, as another player performs a quick Google search on his phone to either put the altercation to rest, or to cunningly spur it on. It has the latter effect.
There are a few points in favour of the argument that pinball is a sport. First, it’s highly organized. Players compete in a season of fifteen weekly Monday night sessions, tallying scores along the way, that culminate in a day-long pinball playoff party with cash prizes and trophies for the winners. Each week, players are divided into groups of three or four based on their ability, and earn points according to how they fare against each other over four rounds. There are fees: $30 for the season, plus $5 for the hosts to keep up their machine maintenance. And there are rules. Lots of them. Extra balls only get one flip, no practicing in between rounds, and “bangbacks” or “deathsaves”—attempts to save a ball once it has “drained”—aren’t extremely offensive, but are highly discouraged.
Second, there’s the skill involved. Whereas most pinball machines may commonly be used as ineffective beer holders at a local dive, the members of the Toronto Pinball League bring years of practice and technique to the game. And they’re flipping good.
If there ever was a pinball wizard, Charles Blaquière would be it. He’s celebrating his fortieth year playing the game, the last fifteen of which have been with ToPL (virtually the entire existence of the League). And his advice is simple: find your flippers, don’t drain (lose your ball), and hit the flashing targets.
But as we watch Blaquière and his fellow players in their element, eyes alive with the blinking lights and hands tight against the sides of their machines, it’s clear there’s much more to it. Blaquière says there are three levels to pinball prowess.
“In the first level, you’re hitting the ball around trying to keep it in play. At the second level, you start to aim at the targets. Then at the third level, that’s where it gets interesting, you start avoiding shots. You make a strategy, going for one risk over another to set off plays, like a chess player,” he says. “Except it’s in real time when you’re making split-second decisions.”
For a pretty stationary pastime, a round of pinball involves a certain artistry as the player attempts to unlock certain modes or storylines depending on the sequence of ramps, slingshots, and buttons they hit, much like the video game or blockbuster film that modern games are modeled after. When Blaquière or Becker play, their whole bodies are involved. Leaning over the glass-covered playfield and side to side with every move, their hands are either clenched tightly to the flipper buttons or float gently over the spot and quickly slap them with a flourish. With more intense shots, they even shake the machine. During more competitive tournaments, some players even resort to wearing bike gloves to ease the strain on the palms of their hands.
“There’s almost a violence in it, I guess there’s a machismo in smacking it and hitting it around,” says Blaquière.
But “machismo” is not a word that immediately comes to mind at a ToPL meet. It seems few ToPL members would consider their beloved game a sport mostly because that means they would have to consider themselves athletes. Actually, the league consists of a highly disproportionate number of white, thirty to fifty-year-old male IT workers who don’t necessarily fit the “jock” stereotype—which they openly admit. Instead of Powerade and protein bars, members pack away homemade brownies, oatmeal cookies, chips, and a fridge full of beer and pop to snack on amid the whirs, whacks, and whistles of the retro machines. And while many major-league athletes have the Casanova factor, if any women do show up to weekly ToPL practices, they’re almost always the girlfriends or wives “dragged” by their ball-playing partners, and rarely return. That, or they’re the 2D voluptuous vixens painted on the machine’s artwork.
“I don’t know if you can get any geekier than collecting pinball machines,” says Chris Bardon, thirty-three-year-old software engineer and a member of ToPL for one and a half years, dressed in a golf shirt emblazoned with a “Computer Talk” logo. “I don’t think anyone’s getting any dates out of this.”
This week’s practice is taking place in Bardon’s basement with his collection of six classic machines, situated between a kitchenette, a home entertainment area, and his daughter’s playroom, littered with stuffed animals and plastic toys. While ToPL originated in downtown bars in the mid-’90s, home video games quickly became the norm as arcade games disappeared from public establishments. Requiring at least four machines to accommodate approximately twenty to twenty-eight players at each session, they’ve had to resort almost exclusively to using the members’ homes—found anywhere from Mississauga to Georgetown, where the space required to house such a collection is more affordable.
Adam Becker and Chris Bardon putting their IT skills to use.
“It’s not the Toronto Pinball League anymore, it’s the GTA Pinball League. There are less and less spaces to play, so we’ve had to turn to the community,” Blaquière says.
Pinball remains, literally and figuratively, an underground pastime in Toronto, but the movement is growing in other parts of the world. Becker, who is ranked third in Canada’s overall pinball standings, competes in eight to nine international pinball tournaments every year, most recently in the Pinburgh 2011 tournament earlier this month. Currently, he’s building a 1,500 square foot space on his property in Keswick that will be devoted entirely to pinball, including his own collection of twenty-one machines, so one day he can host the International Flipper Pinball Association World Championships, an annual invite-only tournament featuring the top sixty-four players from around the world, this year taking place in Sweden.
But looking closer to home, the effort it takes to discover Toronto’s league, make it out to the weekly meets, and maintain a rather expensive hobby (Bardon has spent about $14,000–$15,000 after only one year of collecting), results in an incredibly tight-knit, dedicated group of pinball wizards.
“I live, eat, and breathe pinball. I want to know a machine inside and out, every shot, every angle,” Becker says, who sometimes trains twelve to fifteen hours a week before a tournament. “It’s all about the competition.”
“I play for fun,” counters Blaquière. “It’s a thing of beauty⎯the shiny chrome, the warm glow of the coloured lights, the artwork, the sound design…the fact that someone actually made the machine and took the time to get the ball to do these beautiful arcs. There’s a beautiful aesthetic about it.”
For most of us, a pinball machine is either a drunken moment of frivolity, or an excuse to make fun of that show based on the music of The Who. But for the members of the Toronto Pinball League, it’s a testament to a handmade game of skill, precision, and dedication—one they treat with respect, sportsmanship, and not nearly as many ball jokes as one might expect. The debate continues over whether it’s a real sport or not, but it’s clear that the players sure are.
Photos by Rémi Carreiro/Torontoist.