WAUNAKEE — Rob Stickney spent seven years taking night classes to get degrees in the electrical engineering technician field but had no intention of leaving his job with the city of Madison where he maintains parking ramps.
Instead, his time at Madison Area Technical College was all about making sure that his Judge Dredd, Pin-Bot and Fire Power pinball machines were in proper working order. Hiring someone to fix a 25- to nearly 30-year-old pinball machine isn’t cheap and technicians are scarce.
“It’s strange motivation, I know,” said Stickney, who remodeled his basement four years ago to accommodate his pinball habit. “There’s no room for a bar. If I had more space, I’d have more (pinball) machines.”
Stickney, 45, is part of a growing niche of enthusiasts resurrecting the pinball machine, an arcade game that has been overshadowed in the last 30 years by the video game. While pinball has never been extinct, you could say it has been on the endangered species list.
At first, the stand-up video games crowded the pinball machines out of places like Space Port on State Street, Tilt at Westgate and the Aladdin’s Castles at East Towne and West Towne. Home systems eventually closed the arcades and now smartphones let us play wherever and whenever we want.
Bars, fraternal organizations and American Legion halls also dumped pinball in favor of more lucrative games like video poker gambling machines and the Golden Tee video golf games that would bring in more money in a day than a pinball machine would generate in a month, Stickney said.
But pinball may be making a comeback.
A tournament that drew players from five states was held Saturday in Waunakee while the Mad City Flippers Pinball League formed last fall and has 20 players. They travel throughout southern Wisconsin and play in the homes of pinball machine owners once a month in cities that include Reedsburg, Waterloo, Madison, Black Earth and Lodi.
Milwaukee is home to the Twisted Flippers Pinball League while the Appleton area has the Fox Cities Pinball League. All the leagues keep standings and amass points that qualify players for state and national tournaments like the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association World Championships held each August in Carnegie, Pa. The event is held in a 30,000-square-foot facility jammed with 450 pinball machines, according to its website. The International Flipper Pinball Association holds its U.S. tournament in May in Lyons, Colo.
“It’s just the chaos,” said Tim Enders, when asked why he likes pinball. “Every game is going to be different.”
Enders, 43, of the town of Westport, is an industrial engineer at a fuel controls manufacturer and has been playing since he was a kid growing up in Madison. He can quickly rattle off some of his old, now defunct, pinball haunts. They included Uncle Stanley’s at University Square, Shakey’s Pizza on East Washington Avenue, Tom Fooleries on Mineral Point Road and a backroom at the Stone Hearth on South Park Street, where in 1977 a little-known rock band called AC/DC performed before a crowd of 75 people.
Enders now owns 11 pinball machines.
“It just builds from childhood,” he said.
Members of the Mad City Flippers come from a cross section of professions. Andy Thompson, 42, works at Woodman’s Market on the West Side; Hilton Jones, 35, is at Covance while Todd McIlwee, 42, manages the Waun-A-Bowl, a 16-lane bowling alley attached to a Pizza Hut in Waunakee.
It was McIlwee who started the Waun-A-Pinball tournament in 2011 after meeting Steve Tully, a technician with Quarter Time Distributors, a Waunakee-based vending company founded in 1932. Tully, who has been with Quarter Time for 24 years, also loves his pinball and has 10 machines in his heated garage in Waterloo.
“I thought it would be just Madison players here but now we have five states represented,” McIlwee said of the tournament. “It’s a hobby thing. Some guys work on their cars, some guys work on their pinball machines.”
Saturday’s tournament, held in the bowling alley’s banquet room, was limited to 50 players, had eight people on the waiting list and a purse of $750. Five pinball machines were used including Big Buck Hunter, which features a deer that slides across the machine and challenges players to hit it with a silver ball flicked from a flipper. Other games included Operation Thunder, The Avengers, Judge Dredd and Scared Stiff.
“We mix and match and try to change it up every year,” Tully said. “We set them harder for good players. If you don’t, they’re going to (play) for 20 minutes on one ball.”
Tully, 54, grew up in Watertown, where his father was a minister. After high school, he worked as an auto mechanic in Madison before delivering for Pizza Pit and enrolling at what is now Herzing College to study electronics. Tully’s interest in pinball can be traced to an aunt who had a pinball machine in her basement.
The annual Waunakee tournaments have helped revive the game locally and led to the formation of the traveling league. The pinball machines can be in garages, basements, living rooms and dining rooms. Sometimes in all four.
“It’s neat to have like-minded people together,” Tully said. “It’s just kind of a childhood thing run amok.”
To get a peek at the pinball and other gaming worlds, Tully suggests a trip to Brookfield on April 12 and 13 to the Midwest Gaming Classic, a massive trade show and convention at the Sheraton Hotel, near Brookfield Square. The event started in 2001 with console games but now includes video arcade, pinball and tabletop games and fills a 40,000-square-foot convention hall.
Pinball is also getting a further boost locally.
Hilton Jones, who has 10 machines in the living and dining rooms of his Madison home (yes, he’s married), is putting four pinball machines in April into Pooley’s, a sports bar on Madison’s Far East Side. In September, the bar will host the Mad Rollin Pinball tournament that raises money for cancer.
“Steve’s kind of the Godfather of pinball,” Jones said of Tully. “We just want to bring back real pinball.’”