The Growth of Pinball: An Evidence-Based Review
by Dennis Kriesel
In the current climate of the pinball hobby, it is commonly accepted that pinball is in a growth period. This is often expressed in a variety of ways. A pinball resurgence. The renaissance of pinball. The return of analog entertainment. Regardless of phrasing, the same general concept is in play. Things were once good, then they got bad. Now, they are good once more.
This general feeling of growth makes a lot of sense, but how can it actually be measured? There are a variety of variables that could work, but many of those are limited by a lack of good data. This brief article shall explore growth on two fronts: ownership and competitive play.
Pinball manufacturing counts would be the ideal way to measure any sort of ownership, but many companies at this stage do not release production figures (outside of limited production models). As such, a proxy for the information is required. This is where the popular pinball forum Pinside comes into play.
On Pinside, site users may tag games within the Pinside database as being owned. The database itself is quite comprehensive, so that does not pose a problem. There are a number of flaws with the methodology, however:
- Owners have to self-report (and may not report fully, accurately, or remember to update when a game comes or goes from a collection)
- Pinside’s forum discussions often revolve around collecting, and it may not be a good source of data for other non-collector owners (namely operators) since the majority of the forum’s activity does not cater to their needs
- Data is organized around the year the pinball machine was originally produced, not specifically when it was built or what year the owner acquired the game
Even with these data limitations, the information can still be useful, as even the Pinside subset that tracks their ownership through the system can help reflect whether more recent games are listed as owned versus older titles.
Figure 1 provides a visual representation of game ownership counts, by manufacturer, for pinball machines produced in 2007 through 2017. While growth is not constantly expressed, the first five years (2007-2011) show an average of 695 pins owned by Pinsiders per year, while the last five years (2013-2017) show an average of 2,045 pins owned by Pinsiders.
Figure 2 shows the list of games used and what the specific ownership counts were (organized alphabetically) to fully articulate just which games were included for consideration.
So, comparing the last ten years, ownership growth is real according to this self-reported dataset. The data does not indicate that every single year outperforms the prior year, but due to the limitations on how the data was gathered and organized it is impossible to determine how much of that is purchasing reality versus other factors (older games produced and sold for longer time periods have advantages in data organized this way, for example).
The other set of growth data to examine is on competitive play. Given pinball is often played on location (public or private), it is possible for the hobby to grow without pinball sales growing (indeed, it is conceivable for competitive pinball to grow even if no new pinball machines were produced ever).
To explore this, the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) provided several years’ worth of competitive data. Unlike the Pinside dataset, this does not go back quite as far, covering 2009 through 2017. Figure 3 shows the trendlines for the number of players, the number of unique players, and the number of events.
This data provides compelling evidence of growth (beyond the ownership data, since every year improves in competitive terms). Figure 4 removes the total attendance figure in order to better focus on unique (in other words, different) players and individual tournaments that were processed as IFPA sanctioned.
The growth shown in competitive pinball is quite significant. The table in Figure 5 shows the percentage growth versus the prior year for all three datapoints (events, unique players, and total players).
As the table shows, every year has shown double-digit percentage growth for all categories (with one exception, the 4.54% growth in unique players in 2016 from 2015). Given the quantity of events and players involved, the IFPA data set is a good measure for competitive pinball (though even this is not fully comprehensive, since a lot of competitive play can take place outside of the IFPA’s sanctioning system).
As one would assume, the evidence does indicate pinball is actually in a growing stage. It is extremely obvious on the competitive front. On the ownership side of things, it isn’t as clear-cut, though available data does clearly show games from more current years are claimed as owned in higher volumes than games produced 6-10 years ago. Obviously, there are other growth indicators that could be explored. The number of manufacturers is an obvious one (though how meaningful that is without production values remains to be seen). Other interesting categories could be the number of pinball shows per year (and what their attendance was), or how many public locations have pinball (and how many machines per location). Given the variety of ways to experience the hobby, the full truth of growth really is more than just ownership or competitive play.
Nonetheless, the categories explored here are of sizable importance to the hobby (and from a review standpoint are nice because some semblance of organized, multi-year data is available). They do clearly indicate growth versus just a few years back. Whether that growth is sustainable and will continue is another matter entirely (and beyond the scope of this article).
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