Tilt! Old-school pinball is no longer old-school

ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. — The old-school arcade game of pinball is resurging in popularity.

Interest has skyrocketed over the last decade or so, with the number of players and competitions growing worldwide, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association. There were 500 players in 50 competitions worldwide in 2006, according to the IFPA. In 2017, there were nearly 4,500 competitions and more than 55,000 players.

"Pinball is not going away," says pinball player Zach Sharpe, also the spokesman for the world's leading pinball manufacturer Stern Pinball, Inc. in Elk Grove Village, a Chicago suburb. "It can't be replicated and I think that's why it never truly goes away."

The first game ever patented was in 1871, but access to games stalled from the 1940s through the 1970s with some cities banning pinball because it was deemed to be gambling, according to Roger Sharpe, Zach's father, who wrote the book "Pinball!"

The elder Sharpe is known in the pinball world for convincing the New York City Council that the game is more skill than luck, leading to the city lifting its ban in 1976 and precipitating the removal of similar restrictions elsewhere.

Since then, popularity has ebbed and flowed. But Zach Sharpe says his company's revenue has shot up in recent years. This year revenue grew 30 percent over 2016 and 2016 was up 40 percent over 2015.

He attributes some of this growth to smartphone applications that show enthusiasts where to find pinball machines, video pinball and arcade bars.

The game attracts a variety of ages, including 14-year-old Escher Lefkoff, who at 13 won the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association's World Championships last spring.

"It was my day," he said recently at the Chicago Pinball Expo. "I played great that day and I won. It was the most magical moment of my life."

His dad Adam Lefkoff is also a ranked player and inspired his son to play when he was just two years old. Nearly 12 percent of ranked players are women.

The Lefkoffs travel to pinball tournaments from their home in Longmont, Colorado, and Adam Lefkoff says the game teaches his son life lessons.

"The ball is going to drain. That is inevitable," said Adam Lefkoff. "It's important what you do while the ball is in play."