The Greatest Sporting Event of April that You Didn’t Even See!

Pinball Magazine was nice enough to publish my article as a full PDF Free Download from their website. Check it out!

Hey guys, I wrote this up today while I sat at work. It still needs refinement and editing, but I thought it should be shared. I apologize for any typos, misspellings, and grammatical mistakes, but hey I teach Social Studies not English. I hope you enjoy it. The Greatest Sporting Event of April that You Didn’t Even See! (now updated with pictures and some grammar fixes)

The Greatest Sporting Event of April That You Didn’t Even See!

A Month of Sports Greatness

What a time to be alive! If you are a sports fan April may be the best month of the year. There may not be a single massive event like the Super Bowl or the World Cup Championship, but there is the culmination of March Madness, Opening Day for MLB, the start of the playoffs for both the NBA and the NHL, and even the Masters for the PGA! On top of all of that this year has seen some even more incredible moments take place at all of those events with Villanova draining a last second shot to defeat perennial powerhouse North Carolina in what many have called the greatest NCAA Basketball National Championship game of all time. The UConn Huskies collecting a record breaking 4th straight Women’s NCAA Basketball National Championship. The Golden State Warriors tying the 72 regular season wins record set by the 1996 Chicago Bulls still with a chance to surpass them on the last night of the season. Kobe Bryant wrapping up a hall of fame career.  The Detroit Red Wings nearly missing the playoffs for the first time in 25 years before sneaking in on the last day of the season. An unfortunate collapse on the back nine at The Masters by Jordan Spieth leading to a new champion receiving the Green Jacket in Danny Willett. Don’t forget my sweet Chicago Cubbies opening the season 5-1, but not without typical Cub news in the fashion of losing Kyle Schwarber for the entire year to an outfield collision only a few games into the season.

Wow just recapping all those moments again gets my blood flowing and adrenaline pumping……and yet none of them have gotten me as excited as what I witnessed yesterday on a late Sunday afternoon being streamed from a warehouse like facility. The event, PAPA (Professional and Amateur Pinball Association) World Pinball Championships. The location, PAPA Headquarters, in Pittsburg, PA. The Champion, Robert Gagno, a 27 year old from Canada.

What Makes a Sport Today?

When I opened the sports page in today’s paper I saw headlines detailing most of the events I listed above, especially Spieth’s collapse, but nowhere did I find even a blip of a mention of what Robert Gagno achieved yesterday. It is sad, but I suppose to be expected. The idea of competitive pinball and the scene itself is still evolving. It is a far stretch from the mainstream media at this point. Up until yesterday I would have agreed and still been leaning towards the argument made by many that pinball is not a sport. Robert changed that for me yesterday, and not just Robert but all of the competitors who participated in the four day grind that was the PAPA World Pinball Championships. There were over 400 players competing over the four days, divided by skill level and IFPA ranking from “A” division thru “D” division.

This month ESPN covered “Heroes of the Dorm” culminating with a Heroic Four, and then a three hour special on the Final last night on ESPN 2. This was a 64 team challenge of collegiate university teams playing the online video game Heroes of the Storm for $500,000 in scholarship and prize money. It is known as e-sports, and they are rapidly gaining popularity in the United States, and have surpassed the popularity of many “traditional” sports around the globe. Honestly pretty cool for ESPN to cover, but to me not necessarily a sport. However many argue that if ESPN is giving you coverage it is safe to say you are recognized as a sporting event. ESPN has been covering competitive poker for well over a decade now, they still showcase bowling on a weekly basis, the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is a massive event, and annually they even broadcast the Scripts National Spelling Bee. Our definition of sports seems to be changing, and I think that is a good thing. It is the reality of how we compete that should define a sport, not what we are competing at. Yet, somehow pinball, a game that takes immense skill and massive amounts game specific rule knowledge has not been able to break in at the Entertainment Sports Programming Network.

Pinball is Alive and Well

Pinball is in resurgence, many would even say a renaissance. There are more locations, leagues, and tournaments taking place now than at any point in history. There are more companies producing pinball machines right now than there have been in almost 20 years. The games being produced are absolutely spectacular in their quality of design, rule implementation, and most importantly fun factor. The games are relevant and current. In just the last year we have seen titles released based on The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Hobbit, and most recently Ghostbusters. New technology is getting pushed into the machines at an incredibly rapid speed, and yet the main idea of the game that has been around for decades remains the same. It is human versus silverball, and what is most exciting is there is never a chance to actually win, at least not when playing by yourself.

That may sound strange, or perhaps even factually wrong too many of you reading this, but I will challenge that it is absolutely true and it is the reason that I think that pinball will continue to grow in popularity. One day it will hopefully be featured as one of the major sporting events of this wonderful month. As a player the greatest thing you can do in pinball is achieve a high score, specifically Grand Champion. If you are successful in this task you will get to enter your initials into the machine for all to see, in essence leaving your mark.

Players take great pride in going to a location with pinball machines and seeing their initials glowing on the displays. The general public may not know who TSS is, but to my friends and fellow competitors in my league they know that is me, Thomas Scott Skinner, or to them just Tommy. I also know their initials, and I still read the dreaded PJG across several machines at my home location of Main Street Amusements in Lafayette, IN. Those initials belong to my friend Phil Gramaldi. Phil moved away from Lafayette to Houston, Texas two years ago….his initials and reputation still stand. Having said all of this, even when you achieve the Grand Champion score, you have never really defeated the machine, there is always another mode to complete, a goal to accomplish, a score barrier to break.

A New Way to Play

Now competitive pinball though, that is different. This is no longer the beer in hand game with your buddies at the local pub. You have clear defined winners and losers. You are no longer just battling a machine; you are battling a machine and other players. Not just one, but three as the games are played in groups of four. At the elite level you need to know these players as well as you know the machines, their strengths, their weaknesses. So many seemingly minute details become magnified on this grand stage and start to mean the difference between a championship banner hanging in the rafters, and being a footnote of history to the person’s name that is printed on that banner.

The World Championships are tough, as you would imagine in any “World” competition it is simply the best of the best competing head to head. The qualifying format for the tournament is unique and it rewards consistency across games, the type of consistency only exemplified by the elite. After several days of players attempting qualification the field is narrowed down to the top 24 players in the world, and honestly simply making it this far is already quite an achievement. It is not uncommon for many of the names to be the same year after year here because they are the best for a reason. The top 8 qualifiers are rewarded for their high scores with a bye in the first round and the remaining 16 players compete in groups of four. Now this is where knowledge of the machines and your opponents becomes most important as the highest seed in each group gets to “drive the bus”, meaning they chose the game that will be played. This is the equivalent of a general picking the battlefield in a war. Do you pick a game that you know best? Do you pick based upon an opponent’s perceived weakness? How have the rules, or possibly even some physical aspect of the machine been altered? Do you want to be the first player on the machine, or the last? The decisions alone are nerve-wracking, let alone having to actually play the game against three other extremely talented players.

Points are earned by your finishing position in the group of four, player score does not matter. You are no longer striving for a Grand Champion score on every game, although it never hurts, but instead simply trying to surpass each opponent. It often reminds me of the saying, “I don’t need to be faster than the bear, I just need to be faster than you.” In this case the machine is the bear, and the “you” well that is your opponents. Three games are played and the scoring system goes 4, 2, 1, and 0 with 4 points going to the top finisher in the group and on down the line for each game; only the top two players from each group of four advances to the next round of competition.  So onward we march from 24 to 16, down to eight, and lastly your top four finalists, one who will be crowned the World Champion!

The Final Four

And now I take you back to yesterday, Sunday evening, April 10th, 2016. The final four players are Zack Sharpe, Jim Belsito, Robert Gagno, and John Replogle. None of them have previously been the World Champion.

Sharpe, currently ranked 5th in the world, comes from what you would call a pinball family; many would call it “The Pinball Family”. His brother Josh is also a top ranked player, currently 21st, and was among the 24 qualifiers for the finals this year. Josh also happens to be the sitting President of the IFPA (International Pinball Flipper Association). The IFPA is responsible for the World Pinball Player Ranking (WPPR, pronounced whopper) point system. His father is Roger Sharpe, the man many credit for helping to legalize pinball in the late 70’s. In addition to being pinball’s savior Roger literally wrote the book on the history of pinball, and eventually designed a few games himself before working in the licensing department of Williams Pinball. His deals lead to the creation of many of the most popular titles of the 90s. Today he is still helping pinball manufactures secure licensed properties through his own company including Dutch Pinball’s The Big Lebowski due out later this year. Zack is not a stranger to these high pressure situations having just won Pinburgh (another major pinball tournament with over 600 competitors) last August.

Jim Belsito, currently ranked 15th in the world, came in fresh of a Runner-up finish in the California State Championships. He has been playing competitively since 1994, including tournament appearances all over the world. Belsito has appeared in the final four at PAPA before, most recently in 2011 when he finished 4th. Needless to say this wasn’t his first rodeo.

Jon Replogle, 39 years old and ranked 29th in the world entering the tournament made a bit of a Cinderella run to the finals. Not only was he a hometown hero, himself being from Pittsburg, but he also helps out at the PAPA facility as they do there bi-weekly pinball broadcast featuring high level players doing game tutorials and demonstrations. Jon was a dark horse to make the finals as the lowest ranked player in the final four, and only a few years ago was playing in the C division at this very same tournament. In addition to all of this Jon actually suffered a very scary hand to chainsaw accident just over a year ago which caused him to miss out on participating at last year’s World Championships. During yesterday’s broadcast you could actively hear the spectators in the background cheering Jon on during the semi-finals during his game of World Cup Soccer, even though his game wasn’t the one being currently broadcasted.

Lastly that brings us to Robert Gagno. As I already spoiled several paragraphs before he is your eventual 2016 PAPA World Pinball Champion. Robert is 27, he entered the tournament ranked 10th in the world, and he left yesterday with one of the coolest trophies in all of sports, the PAPA Alien World Championship Trophy, and a $10,000 cash prize, and most importantly a banner will be hung with his name from the rafters in the PAPA Headquarters.

 

Becoming a Spectator Sport

The entire day of finals from 24 players down to the eventual championship game was streamed on Twitch. The website has a rapidly growing base of players who are streaming pinball be it at home or from a location, casual play to leagues to major events like yesterday ,the PAPA World Championships. Individuals with great passion and knowledge of the hobby help to make these broadcasts a success as the commentators need to have almost as much game knowledge as the players themselves to fully understand how to call the games. Yesterday’s broadcast of the Championship was being called by Bowen Kerins, a multiple time World Champion himself, and Ed Robertson. Yes that Ed Robertson, the lead singer of the Bare Naked Ladies. Ed is what we affectionately call ourselves, a pinhead, having a nice collection of his own games, and playing wherever he can while his band tours, and he isn’t half bad at pinball.

Thanks to the efforts by these individuals, as well as countless more behind the scenes, those of us who couldn’t make the trip to Pittsburg to participate or spectate ourselves were able to tune in and watch history be made. A new world champ would eventually be crowned, and America’s or at least my heart would be melted. The skillful play that was on display was nothing short of spectacular, from nudging skills to flipper tactics to rule knowledge to a tiny bit of luck, pinball was on display at its absolute finest.

Time for Strategy, Game 1 Demolition Man

Zach Sharpe as the highest remaining seed was “driving the bus” which meant he had a choice of game selection or he could pick playing position, as to be expected he chose games. The group started out with Demolition Man. Zack played first and was able to put up a good score of 945 million that would end up holding for a 1st place finish on game 1, but not before Robert nearly staged and epic comeback finishing with 895 million for a solid second place finish. Belsito came in 3rd with 281 million, and the bright lights of the finals may have gotten to Replogle a bit as he put up a paltry 41 million for the goose egg on game 1.

Game 2, I am Iron Man

Zach next chose Iron Man, a game known for its speed and brutality. The choice came as a bit of a surprise to me as Zach had just been bested by Robert on this game in the previous round by a score of 23 million to 10 million. It is a game that he knows well, and has put up huge scores on in the past, and players advice pick to your strengths in these high pressure finals situations. Iron Man was where the sparks really started to fly into making these finals so exciting. Robert would end up finishing first with a score of 22,642,650, but right behind nipping on his heels was Replogle with 22,393,910, a mere shot or two away from claiming victory! Belsito would eat the goose egg on this one with only 2 million and Sharpe finishing in 3rd with 7million. Robert had one of the craziest ball unsticks from a game I have ever seen with a pop up post literally sending the ball hurling over several areas of the game before making an epic save to continue his play. Replogle masterfully adjusted to the finals on the second game and did an excellent job at playing Iron Man to its rules and stacking together several multiballs to see his score rapidly increase before falling just short. Zach Sharpe was the unlucky victim of Whiplash’s magnet on the game as it sent a ball scorching back so fast at his flipper that it literally hopped over it causing a drain, and Belsito, well he got the full Iron Man experience with the 2 million points.

Game 3 The Decider, Flash Gordon

This gave Robert 6 points, Sharpe 5 points, Replogle 2 points, and Belsito 1 point heading into the final game. Belsito was mathematically eliminated from victory. Replogle could potentially force a playoff game for the Championship with a clean victory on game three. In reality it was all down to Sharpe versus Gagno at this point. Sharpe chose Flash Gordon as the battlefield that would decide it all. For every bit of brutality that Iron Man is known for Flash Gordon has it worse; out-lanes that seem as wide as the Rio Grande, in-line drops that are crucial to big scores but have destroyed more players than they have helped, and exposed pop bumpers that can send a ball down the middle in the blink of an eye. It is known as a “players” game, one that has short ball times, and low scores. It was described by the commentators as, “A game you will own for 6 months and absolutely hate it, before you realize how much of a better player it has made you.” They also speculated that Sharpe may have chosen based on a perceived weakness of his opponents instead of a strength of his own, after all the game itself is older than Gagno. In the end it would be Sharpe’s downfall. Sharpe opened up the game with a solid ball one approximately 165,000 points, it was good enough for a solid lead over his opponents heading into ball two.

Ball two was not as kind to him as it made a quick exit from the playfield. Replogle was accurate, but even accuracy is no guarantee of success on Flash Gordon, as Kerins put it, “Sometimes Flash Gordon decides the who wins.”, and the ball was in the drain before you knew it. Belsito had an excellent ball that demonstrated his years of experience in competition and on this era of game, and then it happened as it always does the ball found a way to escape.

Robert approached the game for his second ball and his attempt at claiming victory. Robert went on to play one of the longest balls I have ever seen on a competition Flash Gordon. Every time the ball appeared to be headed towards danger he had the perfect nudge or tap to keep the ball in play. His shots were accurate, his knowledge was superb, he capitalized on the shots were worth the most to the tune of 718,000 points. As I sat in bed watching this on my TV I began to record video of it from my cell phone, a weird thing to do seeing as how this was being broadcast online and would be archived. This was the moment that it hit me that this was more than a hobby or activity, this was a sport. I reached that conclusion because where else do you see people compelled to get out their phones and begin filming what they are witnessing….perhaps NCAA Championships, or at NBA games where a team is breaking a wins record, possibly on Opening Day of what could end a century long World Series drought, and now at the PAPA World Pinball Championships.

I sat and watched in amazement as I filmed the end of his ball. The focus and fun on Robert’s face were unmistakable. I became envious of not just his level of skill, but of the joyous feeling of victory that was at his fingertips. A feeling I have had when competing in wrestling, the sport of my past. I wanted to be there, to witness it first hand as many players and spectators in attendance were able to; the event had the charismatic draw that only sporting events can have. When the ball finally drained, and the bonus points continued to be racked up on the scoring display Robert stared with a smile. Other players stared with astonishment and fear. One by one they walked up and made their attempts to repeat what Robert had done. One by one they each played amazingly. Valiant efforts put forth all the way to the finish, there was no quit in any of his opponents. One by one they each failed. Today, Robert was not going to be catchable. Zach Sharpe would finish 3rd with 426,160, Jim Belsito would edge out Sharpe to finish 2nd with 468,040, and the local here Jon Replogle was punished by the “Savior of the Universe” to the tune of 253,950 for 4th.

A Walk-off Plunge

Robert Gagno, 27 year old Canadian, didn’t even have to play his 3rd ball to win his first PAPA World Championship. He would finish with 10 points, Sharpe behind with 6, Belsito with 3, and Replogle with 2. Robert got to experience the sweetest feeling in pinball the “Victory Plunge”. He walked up to the game, plunged his ball, and was able to raise his hands in triumph! Those hands were soon holding the 35lb PAPA World Championship Alien Trophy. As players gathered to congratulate him and take pictures Robert’s smile never faded. He made his way up to the broadcast both for a postgame interview with fellow Canadian, Ed Robertson. Robert’s jubilation continued to shine during the interview which was highlighted for me by two quotes from the champion himself. The first quote “Makes the whole trip worthwhile,” in reference to Robertson addressing the $10,000 cash prize, and “Do you think my mom is watching live on the internet right now?”, as Ed addressed that Robert’s father was with him at the tournament.  Athletes are always quick so give a shout out to mom or dad after a championship, and Robert was no different. Oh, and have we mentioned yet that Robert is Autistic? I haven’t addressed it because it is not relevant to him being the World Champion and that is what I think this writing should be about.

Why Robert’s Victory Impacted Me

I am a pinhead. I love playing pinball, collecting machines, and competing in tournaments. I am also a high school teacher, but a while back I left the field of education for a variety of reasons. I spent from August of 2014 to August of 2015 working at a place called Cornerstone Autism Center as an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) Therapist.

I worked with children who have Autism ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years old. It was an amazing and life changing experience. Although I have gone back to teaching this school year I have remained close with one of my clients from the center. I look at him like a son. I try to still hang out with him on a weekly basis and my girlfriend and I have become very close with his entire family. Yesterday in the morning I got to take him to his first t-ball game, he got to participate with kids his age in a sport. It wasn’t easy for him, but he did well, and he said he had fun and wants to go again so that is where we will be next Saturday. Watching Robert Gagno yesterday I saw an amazing pinball player, literally the best in the world, who happens to have Autism. Note that is not the other way around…World Champion Pinball Player comes first because that is who Robert is.

I hope that my little buddy is recognized for whatever makes him happiest one day first, and as a footnote that yes he is Autistic. April is Autism awareness month, and I couldn’t think of a better way to help bring attention to it than for Robert to win yesterday. Robert’s full story will be told in a documentary that is coming out in just a few weeks called Wizard Mode. A brief trailer was created for Robert’s story awhile back and the full documentary was successfully crowd funded with amazing speed and is now going to be in need of a director’s cut DVD edition to tell the full story.

 

Click to watch the extended preview of Wizard Mode

 

 The Future of Pinball?

I think Robert makes a wonderful ambassador for the sport of pinball. He is young, charismatic, incredibly talented, and unique. I hope his championship helps bring more mainstream media attention to this new entity that is competitive pinball. I hope that it demonstrates the inclusiveness of the sport. I hope it draws in more people to compete at local tournaments, big shows, and the world championships. I hope that when all this happens people remember Robert first as the World Champion.

I hope in the coming weeks and months Robert is able to make some television appearances to spread the word on how good pinball is for people. I hope some of those mainstream media outlets that didn’t have Robert’s story printed in the sports section today make changes so that next year whoever the champion at PAPA is gets their due credit. Robert thank you for giving me a memorable sports moment yesterday, one that will not be soon forgotten, and I hope you add many more of those Alien Trophies to your shelves over your career.

 

-Tommy Skinner

 

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