Pinball is booming in America, thanks to nostalgia and canny marketing

Sales of new pinball machines have risen by 15-20% every year since 2008
Sales of new pinball machines have risen by 15-20% every year since 2008


  • A generations-old game makes a comeback

On a Tuesday night at Logan Arcade, a bar on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Ian, a 57-year-old assistant manager, looks at the Rick and Morty pinball machine. “This is a frustrating machine," he says. He steps up and takes his turn—one of a group of four, including your correspondent—bashing the flippers to try to direct the ball into the garage of a model house with a flying saucer at the top. A screen above records the scores and shows clips from the TV show, a bizarre cult cartoon. When you hit the right targets, the show moves along. Eventually Ian’s ball falls into the gutter, and he sighs and shuffles out of the way for the next player. “I met the dude who designed this machine," he says. “They take a lot of learning. They’re deep."

Twenty years ago, pinball seemed to be circling the drain. In the 1980s and 1990s video games stole market share from the mechanical sort, and home games-consoles stole market share from arcades. By 2000 WMS, the Chicago-based maker of the Bally and Williams brands of pinball machines, then the biggest manufacturer, closed its loss-making pinball division to focus on selling slot machines. Yet today, pinball is thriving again, both at places like Logan Arcade and in people’s homes.

Sales of new machines have risen by 15-20% every year since 2008, says Zach Sharpe, of Stern Pinball, which after WMS closed became the last remaining major maker. “We have not looked back," he says. Next year the firm is moving to a new factory, twice the size of its current one, in the north-west suburbs of Chicago. Sales of used machines are more buoyant still—some favourites, such as Stern’s Game of Thrones-themed game, can fetch prices well into five figures. Josh Sharpe, Zach’s brother and president of the International Flipper Pinball Association, says that last year the IFPA approved 8,300 “official" tournaments, a four-fold increase on 2014.

What is driving the boom? Much of it is nostalgia. A generation raised on pinball in arcades in the 1980s and 1990s are now at an age where they have disposable income, and kids with whom they want to play the games they played as children. Marty Friedman, who runs an arcade in Manchester, a tourist town in southern Vermont, says that he and his wife opened their business after he realised it would allow him to indulge his hobby. “I compiled a list of the games I felt were essential to a collection you would deem museum-worthy," he said, and went about acquiring them. But canny marketing is also drawing in fresh blood. Newer Stern machines are now connected to the internet, so players can log in and have their scores uploaded to an online profile. Both Sharpes suggest that the mechanical nature of the games appeals to people bored with purely screen-based play.

A couple of generations ago many states banned pinball, seeing the machines as encouraging gambling. In some cities the mafia had a monopoly on servicing them. In 1940s New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor, went around smashing them with a sledgehammer. In the 1970s Roger Sharpe, the father of Josh and Zach, helped overturn the ban in the Big Apple by proving that the game was one of skill, not pure luck. Even now, in South Carolina, fans are still lobbying the state to lift a decades-old ban on people under 18 playing. Yesterday’s teenage vice becomes today’s wholesome family fun, as surely as a pinball eventually falls down the gutter.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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