On Saturday, Jan. 19, Blairally Vintage Arcade hosted the 6th annual Oregon State Pinball Championship. Twenty four Oregon players competed for a $3,000 prize and a spot at the upcoming North American championship in Las Vegas. This year’s state competition, hosted in Eugene for the first time ever, also marked a growing participation from pinball players outside of the Portland scene.
Five Eugene-based players qualified for this year’s tournament, including Hayden Harker, a professor and undergraduate advisor in the University of Oregon math department. He believes the competition at Blairally gave Eugene players a greater incentive to participate.
“Knowing that it was here pushed us to work harder,” Harker said. “We stepped up our game and pushed people in Eugene to play more.” Fellow Eugene players Andy Stubbs, Matt Walton, Brandon Rangel and Darren Dorman also qualified alongside Harker.
Greg Dunlap, a pinball player who organizes the annual state competition, along with other events in Portland throughout the year, showed support for the tournament in Eugene.
“I had already been thinking about doing a state championship at Blairally because I love the place — and everybody up here loves the place,” Dunlap said. “It went great. [The Eugene players] did an amazing job kicking things up, and the state championship was probably the smoothest one we’ve ever had.
The tournament ran in a single-elimination bracket, with each match consisting of a best of seven games. Rather than an accumulation of points, the competition focused on head-to-head rounds on seven different machines for each round.
Fourteen pinball machines — with themes including Dr. Who, The Twilight Zone, Metallica, The Beatles, Flash Gordon and The Walking Dead — were available for the competition. The loser of each game could choose the next machine to play on.
“They all have complex rule sets and if you want to succeed you have to know all of them,” Harker said. Leading up to the competition, he made a goal to play for at least an hour each day. “There are a lot of skills you can actually practice, but just more time playing helps you read the physics better,” he said.
Both Harker and Dunlap have over two decades of serious pinball experience under their belts. For Dunlap, it started with a larger pinball tournament in Chicago, which eventually lead to him joining a league. Harker started taking pinball more seriously after meeting a friend in grad school at UO. He was downstairs at an arcade in Erb Memorial Union — where Falling Sky Pizza is located now.
“[My friend] had already been playing a little bit — sort of mastering the rule sets more,” he said. “I had always loved pinball, so I started doing it then. I’m a solid twenty years into learning pinball pretty seriously.”
But even with those skills and that amount of experience, pinball games can remain varied. “You can have good days and bad days. For me, that’s what I like about pinball,” Harker said. “I [have] watched people that are literally in the top ten in the world have an entire game in a total of thirty seconds.”
On Saturday, Harker lost his first round, after a full seven-game match, to Portland player John Fujita. Other significant players included Zoe Vrabel, who is ranked as one of the best female players in the world, and Colin Urban, a 16-year-old pinball player that won Oregon’s 2018 state championship. Dunlap advanced to round three but lost to this year’s eventual state champion, Daniel Rone.
Rone will move on to the North American pinball championship in Las Vegas on Mar. 28, hosted by the International Flipper Pinball Association. “I think he’ll do pretty well,” Dunlap said. “I felt extremely fortunate to even take him to seven games. I would never claim to be as good as he is.”
Within the last decade, Harker and Dunlap have noticed a resurgence in the competitive pinball scene, thanks in part to more accessible competitions and an international ranking system. “[A lot of players] are not looking to be the best pinball player in the world, but they are still looking to improve and focus on themselves,” Dunlap said.
As the scene continues to grow, Harker hopes that the Oregon State Championship can alternate each year between Portland and Eugene. “It’s really fun environment even though it is somewhat competitive,” Harker said. “I like the group of people in the pinball community, for the most part everybody seems supportive.”