When it comes to competitive gaming, pinball isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. Fast-paced and reflex-intensive, pinball is a game that’s as reliant on the physics behind the ball’s movement as it is on the player’s mechanics. It’s hard to classify it as a traditional computer game due to the real-world motion in play. And it’s not uncommon to see a group of 20-something men and women crowded around a machine, beer and mixed drinks in hand, leaned over as they play. True, it might not be the king of the arcade that it once was in the mid-20th century, but that doesn’t mean the pinball cabinet is on the decline.
Case in point: New York City’s pinball community is thriving. With tournaments hosted across Brooklyn’s dive bars, it’s easy to miss the competitive scene around the city. But it’s there, being organized regularly. From the Sunshine Laundromat off the G train, to Skylark in Park Slope, any pinball player that wants to test their skills can grab a few quarters and join a league.
Miriam Nadler is one such player. Nadler, who works by day as a front-end engineer for Vox, plays for a competitive women’s pinball team called The Pinbabes. She’s a self-proclaimed flow player: a kind of style based on a rhythm of quick, improvised shots to rack up points. She’s also the 2016 Division A champion of the New York women’s pinball league, Belles & Chimes.
I met up with Nadler at her Brooklyn apartment during the dog days of August, just weeks prior to her 1st place win at the league’s finals. The evening before, I had seen her play in person at the second-to-last meeting of the summer. Leaned over the machine, wearing grey fingerless gloves, she racked up scores well into the millions. To say she was in control of the ball is an understatement. She owned the game that night.
“it just forgets about everything else besides the pinball machine”
“A lot of it is flipper skills,” Nadler told me. “Flipper skills are the most important thing about pinball and playing it well. There’s all sorts of cool tricks and all sorts of cool maneuvers that have their own names, everything from ‘drop catches’ to ‘post transfers,’ there’s this whole language.”
Many of these competitive moves are a far cry from the abilities of a casual player. One example she explained to me, a ‘loop pass,’ involves using the flippers to precisely shoot the ball into a loop around the pinball machine. By doing so, the intent is to safely land the pinball onto the opposite flipper. Then there’s even more complex strategies, such as the ‘post transfer,’ which involves using the back end of the flipper to ricochet the ball off of its corner. If done correctly, the post transfer should quickly and safely land the pinball onto the other flipper.
In experienced hands, in other words, competitive pinball isn’t about chance. It’s about aim and skill. An expert pinball player can nail shot after shot precisely, aiming the ball exactly where they want to go: whether at a bumper, a loop, a ramp, or their opposite flipper.
But pinball’s competitive side isn’t just about learning how to pull off flipper shots. It’s also about learning how every individual machine works, and how to score the most points possible during play.
“Knowing the actual mechanics of pinball vis-à-vis how to play a specific game is really big,” Nadler said. “An example of this is [Stern Pinball’s] AC/DC … I’ve personally won plenty of competitive matches on AC/DC just because I knew what mode to go for and what order to get easier points. I didn’t necessarily outplay somebody, but because I knew to go for like, ‘Highway to Hell’ or something, or whatever mode, that gave me enough extra points that I could eke out a win, just barely.”
Nadler’s history with pinball begins around 2013. On her way home from work as an expeditor, Nadler came across a dive bar called Satellite Lounge. Now closed, the Lounge was known for its collection of pinball machines during its heyday. Its cabinets quickly became her gateway into the world of competitive pinball.
“I would just walk by and notice they had all these pinball machines in there,” she told me. “I forget exactly how many. Maybe, like, 7 or 8? And eventually I just went in—it helped that they had a $5 beer and shot combo too—so I just walked in one day and I was just playing pinball.”
Nadler already knew how to play pinball. She used to play as a kid. But pinball became a hobby to take up on the way between work and home. An activity to enjoy by herself, as Nadler put it. And Nadler had fun playing at the Satellite Lounge. It broke up the hustle of trying to make ends meet in New York City.
“Living in New York can be stressful,” Nadler said. “And I feel like with pinball, there’s so much more stimulus than even New York of all places, in such a small place, that your brain knows that it can’t possibly process all of it. Like, what you’re looking at and everything around you. So it just forgets about everything else besides the pinball machine.”
As an expeditor, Nadler had the hand-eye coordination skills necessary to do well at pinball. But she largely played by herself, focusing more on the game than its scoring system. As she kept on playing at the Satellite Lounge, though, Nadler was invited to join New York City’s competitive scene.
“I started playing there, and I met a bunch of people who played there,” Nadler explained. “And a couple months later, some people I’d met at the bar asked me if I would be an alternate for a match in the pinball league. And I’d been a little bit resistant about playing competitively.”
“But then it was too late for me,” she admitted. “And these guys asked if I would play on their team for the night. And I did, and it was against this team called The Pinbabes. And I ended up doing really well! And they told me later that they were like, ‘Who is she? Wait, who is she?!’”
And so began Nadler’s career as a competitive pinball player in New York City.
The idea of a women’s league isn’t exactly a new concept. During the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th, women across the United States began playing in team sports leagues that were solely created for female athletes. From the Women’s Professional Football League of 1965, to the wartime creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943, there’s a wide and varied history of women playing professional sports in the United States. Today, there are professional leagues dedicated to women in basketball, baseball, and football, among many other sports. While not necessarily as popular as their male-only counterparts, these leagues give women athletes the room to compete and play against other women—and show the world that team sports aren’t just for men.
This paradigm has been reproduced in esports to some extent. From Call of Duty’s Female Pro League, to the women’s only Super Smash Bros. event Smash Sisters, a number of events have emerged across the competitive gaming community that encourage women to join, compete, and learn how to take their game to the next level. Granted, most of these women’s spaces are limited to a select few games. Particularly, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has hosted some of the most popular women’s events in esports, with such tournaments as the Copenhagen Games’ CS:GO Ladies, the GamePlan Female League, and the Intel Challenge Katowice. But even then, women’s leagues are finally starting to become a visible part of esports. They allow women to play and compete with one another in an inclusive environment, one that often encourages other women to jump in.
Belles & Chimes is built out of this same momentum. The organization originated on the West Coast in 2013, when its first chapter was founded in Oakland. Since then, a variety of sister organizations have emerged across North America, in every city from Cleveland to Oklahoma City, Portland to Austin. The core mission statement is a running theme throughout all of its local chapters: “provide a fun, social environment for women to play pinball together.” And in Belles & Chimes New York, that’s certainly the case.
“it’s a safe place for competition, it feels like a good, healthy outlet”
Nadler told me about the league late one night after a round of multiplayer pinball in a cozy Brooklyn bar. Fascinated by the idea, I decided to tag along for my first game of Belles & Chimes at the tail end of the league’s run. Joined by Nadler and her partner in the far back of the Sunshine Laundromat, I sheepishly entered a casual tournament and tried my hand. Beginner’s luck was on my side; I did quite well when I tried my hand at Stern’s AC/DC and Williams’ incredibly fast White Water. But even when I struggled, the women I was competing with were more than happy to cheer me on. They weren’t just glad to see me there: they wanted me to enjoy myself, too. Laid-back, relaxed, and fun, it was a very different experience from the competitive environment I’ve grown accustomed to in Counter-Strike and Dota 2.
Besides knowing most of the women attending Belles & Chimes, part of the reason why Nadler enjoys the league is because of its friendly disposition.
“A fair amount of it is that it is a women’s league, and the competition just feels different in a certain way,” she told me. In particular, she notices there’s “this feeling of rooting for your opponent in a certain way” that differs from other sports.
“One thing that I was talking about with somebody is how it’s a safe place for competition, it feels like a good, healthy outlet,” Nadler said. “Pinball in general does, especially Belles & Chimes for competition, because you’re still trying to win and you’re still trying to kick ass. But also, like, you’re doing that while rooting other people on.”
Jade Ang’s introduction to pinball was not all that different from Nadler’s. Ang, who organizes the New York chapter of Belles & Chimes, originally became interested in pinball after stumbling across Modern Pinball on 3rd Avenue. Impressed by all the machines on display, she spent two hours playing and became hooked. But Ang mostly played alone, clocking an hour in each week by herself. It wasn’t until her first Belles & Chimes match that she began seriously considering the world of competitive pinball. At the time, the league’s events were being run by Pinbabes Founder, Anna Wolk.
“Anna Wolk is an amazing, amazing player, and up until that point I hadn’t actually played with other people,” Ang told me over Google Hangouts. “And to see her so skillfully playing, and just playing so strategically and with such great technique, I hadn’t even realized that, like, that was even possible in pinball. So for me, playing at that Belles & Chimes event was huge.”
When Ang stepped into the scene, Belles & Chimes events were happening sporadically. Tournaments would be hosted only once every couple of months. But last winter, Ang decided to take on a new initiative—what if Belles & Chimes hosted a season for women to compete and play against each other?
“What is really helpful about Belles & Chimes is that there are so many other active chapters around the country,” she told me. “Like, for example, I know the Belles & Chimes Portland just started last year, and they have a huge, huge turnout, and that’s been really popular. So, yeah, I was asking around other Belles & Chimes people—like [Echa Schneider], who’s the founder, she’s in San Francisco, and [Jessica Lea DeNardo] up in Portland—just like, how they run their leagues.”
Setting up a league is more complicated than it seems. Ang realized if she wanted to run a competitive season for New York City’s female players, then she would have to do a lot of background research on how to organize the event.
“There were just a lot of logistical things,” she told me. “Like, I dunno, what’s the format? How do you figure out finals? And how much do you charge people?”
Alongside Belles & Chimes, Ang also plays on The Pinbabes with Nadler. As participants in the New York City Pinball League, both women pointed out that pinball does have its issues with inclusion for women. They found that there’s something special about Belles & Chimes, largely because of the fact that it is a women’s league.
“I think the fact that it’s all women also helps a lot,” Nader explained. “There are bad actors who are women, there are bad actors who are men, [but] there seems to be more bad actors who are men than women that I know in my life and in the pinball community. And most of the guys that I’ve met in pinball are lovely. A few are pretty rotten. And when you’re playing in a league setting, it really only takes that one person on the other team who you had that bad experience with or you know that your friend had that bad experience with to really make the feeling of it different.”
“Little by little, you’re encouraging other women that pinball is for them”
Ang has noticed that pinball has a major gap for gender and race representation. That isn’t just a problem in New York City either. According to Ang, the International Flipper Pinball Association (or IFPA) lists only 10 percent of players in its ranking system as women. And while women may attend pinball events without registering, an overabundance of male players still exists regardless.
“And again, like, the top 100 players, there is literally one woman in the top 100,” Ang explained. “I mean, you look at any of the top players, and 99 percent of the time it’s man—it’s a white man. So yeah, there’s definitely some issues with diversity for sure.”
In the competitive bar scene across New York, Ang found that there’s an unpleasant “gender wars” dynamic that occasionally crops up. Not unlike Nadler’s experience with pinball’s “bad actors,” this can hurt women’s ability to hang out and have fun. Especially because of the added pressure Ang experiences as a female competitor in New York’s co-ed leagues. After all, when the scene is oversaturated with a white male presence, it can feel extremely isolating to participate if you fall outside of those identities.
“If I beat a man at a game, then there’s almost kind of like—and again, it’s hard to put your finger on—but sometimes I get the sense that there’s a little bit of an additional aggression in the way that they play, because they don’t want to lose against a woman,” Ang said. “I would say there’s definitely room for growth. But, again, that’s part of the reason why I’m so invested in Belles & Chimes, so it’ll encourage more women to join.”
The sad reality is that Nadler and Ang’s experiences aren’t unique to pinball. When it comes to competitive gaming, including women has been a major issue for tournament organizers across the board. It doesn’t necessarily help, either, that community hotspots like Twitch chats and YouTube comments sections tend to have a problem with criticizing and berating female competitors. Or, at the very least, hypercompetitive attitudes towards women.
But Belles & Chimes isn’t built on winners and losers. It’s not about high scores or multiballs, consecutive wins or number one seeds. Sure, the league has competitive and casual tiers, but that’s only one part of the picture. First and foremost, Belles & Chimes is about bringing women pinball competitors together to celebrate the sport. It’s a fun way to meet up, grab a beer, and celebrate the game they love to play. And that’s exactly what makes the league so successful.
“Little by little, you’re encouraging other women that pinball is for them. Or it’s a safe space for them,” Ang said. Thanks to Belles & Chimes, that seems to be the case.
August 30th marked the last Belles & Chimes meeting of the 2016 season. The night’s finals were split into two divisions, with Nadler leading Division A. She would be playing against some of the top players in the entire league, including her fellow Pinbabes teammate, Ang. And she came prepared.
After a rough start on Theatre of Magic, Nadler quickly regained her footing on Attack from Mars. By the time the night closed out, she finished the tourney with Tron—a recent game by Stern Pinball, based largely around Disney’s Tron Legacy. Fast and punishing, the game was perfect for a player whose shots are largely based on improvisation. She quickly topped the scoreboard, and walked away from the cabinet victorious.
She owned the game that night.
Make no mistake, the finals was an intense night. But when rankings were announced, Nadler’s competitors were happy to see her win, and they were glad she had a good round of games. That compassionate attitude is a far cry from the rants and ragequits so commonly paraded on /r/livestreamfails, in which competitive players disconnect from streams, throw controllers around, yell aimlessly, or otherwise show bad sportsmanship when losing.
“I just think it’s the sense of comradery and support there that’s at the Belles & Chimes league—or just the women’s league in general—that’s not there in a co-ed league,” Ang explained. “Wherever I can, I will try to let people know like, ‘Hey, this is a tip on how to play this game,’ or like, ‘Hey, maybe next time don’t shoot for that, shoot for this instead.’ Whereas I just don’t think in a co-ed league there would be that kind of—I dunno, I guess as much encouragement.”
In every way, Belles & Chimes represents the best parts of competitive gaming: a love for pushing the boundaries of play, and a sense of community gathered through competition. Ang and Nadler understand that, and it’s one of the reasons why the league is so near to their hearts.
“When I go out, and I happen to have a good night playing pinball, I’m not like, ‘Yeah, I beat those people, they suck,’” Nadler explained. “And when I go out and get my ass kicked, I don’t come home like, ‘Oh, they beat me, I hate those jerks,’ or whatever. It’s always like, ‘Oh. I could have done better,’ or, ‘I didn’t. And that’s okay.’”
At Belles & Chimes New York, it’s okay to lose a match. It’s okay to have a bad night. The crowd understands, and they’re more than happy to lend a helping hand. And it’s that sense of community that truly makes the league a special place for New York’s women players.