ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Inside the Sun Ray Lanes in East St. Paul, it’s a competition unlike any other.

This isn’t your father’s arcade game. This is competitive pinball.

And this is the state championship.

“It’s very competitive,” said Ben Granger, the Minnesota representative to the International Flipper Pinball Association, the sport’s governing body. “There will be a lot of frustration, there will be a lot of anger, there will be a lot of joy. People do take it very seriously at this level.”

The top 16 in the rankings — yes, there are rankings — are here, competing head-to-head in a best-of-7 bracket-style tournament. The winner goes to Nationals in Las Vegas.

“It’s not casual level play, these people are very good at pinball,” Granger said. “And they’re the best at what they do.”

And like any great athlete, there’s a set of skills one must master to have what it takes to be a champion.

“Good reflexes, good twitch muscle reflex, good hand-eye coordination, the calming of the nerves,” Granger said. “But the number one thing is practice, and practicing control. When you start, you’re just wildly flipping at the ball. But over time you learn how to slow it down, trap the ball, get control, make a shot.”

We’re in the midst of a pinball revival.

“Pinball is making a huge comeback,” Granger said.

After basically dying off in the late 90s, popularity in the sport is surging again…

“There’s three or four newer manufacturers that are making new games again,” Granger said. “There’s more and more people that are getting back into it.”

And Minnesota is part of the movement.

“We’re trying to grow the scene, and grow the scene as a sport,” Granger said. “And bring awareness to competitive pinball.”

Because there’s something about this sport that gets you hooked.

“It’s a different game every time, and there’s always a bigger score you can reach,” Granger said. “There’s no limit to what you can achieve.

“(And) the fact that you’re physically controlling a mechanical thing, rather than a video game, which is memorizing patterns. Instead of something that can be defeated over and over, pinball will always win in the end. Gravity will always win.”

David McCoy

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