The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association staff run the two largest pinball tournaments in the world as well as several other events ranking in the top ten. Each year we travel to multiple cities, set up games, software, broadcast equipment, and line up chairs until our backs ache. At some events we help other tournament directors who do the brunt of the work, while at other events all of the decision making and labor falls on us. Over the years, PAPA has run enough events, ranging from one-day single-elimination brackets in bars to the largest competitions in the world, to have a good idea of what works and what does not.
Running a pinball tournament can be a rewarding experience. If done successfully, you will bring entertainment and competition to a variety of people. If your event is multiple days, you will meet new friends and have a great time, all while being forced to endure challenges and make difficult decisions. The key to balancing these two sides of the token and creating a smooth-running event is hard work and pre-planning.
Veteran and novice tournament directors alike are encouraged to read below, adapt any information they feel helpful to their own situations, and build better pinball events!
Being a Director:
The most important attributes for a successful tournament director are the desire for his or her tournament to succeed and the willingness to put in the long, difficult hours to make that happen. Do not take the decision to run an event lightly. Everyone involved in the pinball industry benefits from a competition receiving positive reviews, and similarly, the competitive scene as a whole suffers when an event is run poorly. Do whatever you can to make your event a success, and recognize that a large community of organizers remain involved and are frequently willing to help should you require assistance. And no matter what event you manage or attend as a guest, remember that as we each succeed independently, we all succeed together.
Another important attribute for a tournament director is the ability to communicate clearly to the players. As the tournament director, you make all final decisions, and neither your decisions nor the rules are up for negotiation. With that in mind, do not be afraid to consult other staff or the rulebook if necessary! It is most important to have asked others and made the correct decision in the end than anything else, even if it means players must wait a moment longer for your decision.
Also, you must make the same rulings and expect the same conduct from players whether you are speaking with your brother or a complete stranger. If you do not keep the same high standards for everyone involved, including yourself, your event will suffer, and so will competitive pinball as a whole.
As a tournament director, it is also important you make an effort to speak to players in a casual capacity who have traveled to compete. Get to know your crowd. Make new friends, and don’t forget to enjoy yourself. The more amenable you are to all players, the more it helps put them at ease. The more comfortable players feel at your event, the better they will play, and the higher the competitive bar will be raised.
If you discover a player is new to competitive pinball, make an effort to ensure he or she knows what is happening and ask whether or not he or she is having a good time. Welcome them into the fold and do so sincerely, because it is the new players that will ultimately raise the level of success competitive pinball enjoys in the long term.
Finally, it is extremely important all tournament directors recognize communication goes both ways. Listen to as much feedback as you can regarding your event, and take it seriously. Not all of it will be easy to hear, some of it will be short-sighted, and some of it will be downright bizarre, but among the chatter will also be important insights and trends into how to most effectively improve your event for future years. Don’t view feedback as insults, view it as concern for the well-being of your event. The worst thing a tournament director could hear after putting on an event is silence.
With the popularity of competitive pinball growing, it is not uncommon for competitors to travel long distances to attend events. As a tournament director, it is your responsibility to help ensure these players can find what they need. Before running the event, compile a list of restaurants, nearby attractions, bars, grocery stores, hotels, taxi services, mechanics, hospitals, post offices, and other similar businesses with appropriate phone numbers and addresses for a GPS device or old-fashioned paper directions. When players ask for something, recognize what they went through to attend your event and be prepared to help them if at all possible.
If your event is large, consider having food brought in and sold so the players are not forced to leave. Massage therapists will also frequently be willing to set up stations as a pay-per service for the players or show attendees. A massage therapist may seem like a silly idea, but if you are running a larger, multi-day event or pinball show, players who have hunched over a pinball machine for hours at a time may be more willing and thankful than you think to pay a small fee and have the knots in their shoulders tended to by a professional.
Above all else, remember that when you put on an event, in addition to running a competition, you are becoming a part of the service industry. Act appropriately and treat your customers well.
All prize money for an event, minus basic tournament expenses, should be paid back to the tournament players. As a basic rule, if the tournament requires it in order to exist or run properly, it can be paid for with prize money. Appropriate examples of expenses would be trophies, a reasonable fee for game transportation, parts needed to fix games, a fee for the space rental and possibly a charge for the electric used. All expenses should be related to the pinball tournament only, and tournament directors should use their judgement as to whether an expense is so large an alternative option needs to be found.
Directors should always be willing to discuss associated fees with those who ask and how they relate to the prize pool.
If the pinball tournament is attached to a larger show, it is critical the money from the tournament does not subsidize the show portion of the event in any meaningful way. The expenses for the pinball tournament’s usage of space and electric should be apportioned relative to the actual space and number of outlets used. If the show is having trouble with its door fees, then the show portion of the event needs to make changes to reflect that. The answer is NEVER to steal money from the wallets of its competitive players, which is exactly what is happening when money is skimmed from the tournament prize pool, especially if those players have already paid an entrance fee to gain admittance into the show area solely to play in the tournament in the first place.
Nothing will give a tournament a negative stigma faster than stealing money from the players. And nothing will hurt competitive pinball, a driving force in the overall hobby, faster than new players feeling cheated by an event.
For smaller events (under 40) paying money to the top four or eight players is considered average. For larger events, a prize should be paid to anyone who qualifies for the final rounds. Allocation of the prize money depends on the style of tournament and size of the prize pool, but it is always reasonable to round away from odd percentages. Instead of paying $97.38, round the prize up and pay $100.
The most important thing to remember regarding prize money is to be as transparent as possible with your players as to where the money is coming from and where it is going.
While prize money is important to deciding whether or not players will travel a distance to attend an event, the trophy is what is seen most often afterward. Visitors to a champion’s game room don’t ask to see a brick of cash, but a trophy on the shelf or desk can be brought out at a later date and enjoyed. In the past, pinball trophies have ranged from standard stone-based, figurine-topped trophies to six foot, several hundred pound cast-iron works of modern art. When designing a trophy for an event, the main issues are cost, wow-factor, and transportability.
The cost of trophies is typically deducted from the prize pool. Tournament directors do enough for pinball and are not asked to afford the expense of trophies out of their own pockets. Since the cost is deducted from the overall prize pool, it should remain in balance with that prize pool. Expect to give a plaque or trophy to the top four winners in each division and spend 5% to 10% of the total prize money depending on the size of your event. Larger events should spend closer to the 5% threshold while smaller events can be expected to spend a slightly higher percentage.
The wow-factor of a trophy relates to its rarity. Everyone has seen a basic plaque, and while plaques can be very nice, they are rarely specific to an event other than the engraving. If possible, create a trophy that is unique or design the plaque in a way that shows it is pinball-related. On the other hand, while oversized, cast iron sculptures can be interesting, random art by itself does not serve the same purpose as an award. For example, each flag on the Commissioner’s Trophy in Major League Baseball represents a team in the league. The Lombardi Trophy is of a football, and Lord Stanley’s Cup contains engravings of all previous NHL champions, meticulously detailing the history of the league. Trophies should reflect the game or talent for which they are being awarded if at all possible.
The final consideration in awarding a trophy is transportability. The larger pinball events are world-wide affairs. Players travel long distances to compete, and when they win, the tournament should either present them with a trophy that is able to be transported or be prepared to help arrange shipping of the award. To simply tell a player, “sorry, you’re on your own” is a poor way to treat a champion who has already travelled a long way, sometimes thousands of miles, to attend your event.
In all line systems, players will prefer to have the line or lines appropriately marked and to have chairs offered. Standing in line all day can be very tiresome, and it is especially frustrating for a player to discover he or she has been waiting in the wrong line because it snakes in an unusual direction. Keep in mind what may seem like a common-sense layout for you may not seem that way to someone new to the venue.
The best method for queueing players is to have one line of chairs for each game. If space is a concern, consider using a single chair behind each game to designate which competitor will be playing the machine next, or if possible, consider using software with a built in queue system should the event spacing require it.
General Tips on Tournament Management:
Rules: Have a clearly defined set of rules available to both the players and the officials. When issues arise, always act according to those rules. During a tournament is not the correct time to decide a rule needs changed. Also, anytime something occurs that falls into a “gray area”, which can happen if the rules chosen are not clear enough, the first precedent for handling that specific situation should be carried on throughout the tournament. Make certain all officials are on the same page with all such rulings, so one official is not ruling a specific circumstance one way while another official is ruling the same circumstance another. Clarity and consistency with regard to rules are key to running a successful competitive pinball event!
Keys: If using games that were donated by players, choose a dedicated location to keep all of the different keys for the duration of the tournament. Be sure all pertinent officials know where these keys are and can access them quickly when a need arises. Just as importantly, make sure all officials return the keys to the appropriate location after using them.
Score Entry: If using software that requires continually entering scores, have a second person sitting beside whoever is entering those scores to help answer questions or sell entries. This way whoever is performing the data entry can focus solely on that task as opposed to having to stop and restart for questions or other issues. Data entry at a pinball tournament is not fun, and repeatedly stopping and starting to answer questions or perform other tasks can lead to mistakes. Don’t make it harder on this critical volunteer than it has to be!
Cross-Over Machines: Using cross-over machines in two separate tournament banks at the same time should be avoided if at all possible (such as using the game Taxi in both a main bank and classics bank while qualifying is occurring on both simultaneously). If a problem occurs on a cross-over machine, or if one of them is rendered unusable halfway through the tournament, it causes downtime and affects the standings on both tournament banks as opposed to only one. If space is such a concern that tournament director’s feel cross-over machines absolutely must be used, the highest priority when choosing these games should be placed on their reliability.
Signage: If at a public location or an Expo setting, consider adding Tournament Play Only signs to the machines to keep non-tournament players from interfering. Also, be sure to label any noteworthy changes that have been made to competition games by placing signs for players on the backglass.
Tips on Event Timing:
Complicated Formats: Do not over-complicate your event! While it may sound exciting to have fifteen different divisions piled on top of twenty additional side tournaments, the confusion and stress that inevitably results from this type of over-complication will overshadow the positive aspects of your event. Unless you have the necessary games, space, volunteers, software, additional time, and are mentally prepared to handle the stress of running additional divisions and / or side tournaments, you will be better off focusing on your main event and making it as successful as possible. Only when you are capable of running a successful main tournament should you consider branching out to include additional side tournaments.
Deadlines: Set a deadline for the end of qualifying and stick to it! There will always appear to be an endless number of reasons why you should allow people to continue attempting to qualify, especially coming from those players who are still attempting to qualify, but every time you extend the deadline, you are cheating the player who could potentially be knocked out. Do not ever give special treatment to any player for any reason. Choose a deadline, post it publicly, and stick to it! If players have tickets or attempts left over, either refund them in some fashion, or state at the beginning of the tournament that no one will be refunded and post this information publicly for the duration of the event.
Starting Finals on Time: Be very clear about when finals will begin. Research how much time your finals format will take and plan accordingly. No one wants to finish at 5am EVER! Players do not want to hear that you are sorry for choosing a long-playing game or choosing a format that took 12 hours to finish when you only had time allotted for 5 hours. Make good decisions, and err on the side of finishing earlier, rather than later. If you are running a double-elimination finals bracket and are worried about time, consider making the loser’s side of the bracket 1-game each instead of best 2 of 3.
Staggering Division Finals: If you are running multiple divisions or side events, be sure to stagger the finals correctly so the same players are not required to compete in two or more events simultaneously.
Tournament Qualifying Formats:
Multiple pinball tournament formats exist. Each format has its own benefits and weaknesses, and often the formats are tailored to suit the venue in which the tournaments are held. While other formats not included in this document exist, those presented below are the most vetted by tournament directors.
PAPA World Championships Qualifying:
When a player is ready to play a qualifying entry, he or she approaches the bank of machines designated for the division corresponding to the entry. The player must select the appropriate subset of those machines to be played for the qualifying entry. The exact counts of machines in each bank and machines to be selected per entry may vary from division to division and from tournament to tournament. A typical example might be a bank of ten machines, from which five are selected for each entry.
No machine may be selected more than once on a single entry. These selections must be indicated on the player’s scorecard before he or she begins play. The player then provides the scorecard to the scorekeeper for the division. The scorekeeper will indicate which machine is to be played next by the player, or will indicate that the player must wait. At no time may the player begin play on any machine without being instructed to do so by the scorekeeper.
Players may select a different set of machines for each qualifying entry. Players may not change their selections once they have been accepted by the scorekeeper, except in case of malfunction, or with the express permission of tournament officials.
The player will play his or her selected machines at the time and in the order designated by the scorekeeper. At the end of each game, the player will request that the scorekeeper record his or her score before leaving the machine. It is the player’s responsibility to ensure that the scorekeeper takes down the score, and to doublecheck the recorded score for correctness.
When all games for the entry have been completed, the player must sign his or her entry for the scorekeeper, who will regularly submit completed entries for scoring. Players may not take their completed entry from the scorekeeper.
At any point during play or immediately after play has been completed, the player may elect to abandon his or her entry by notifying the scorekeeper. This will void all scores recorded so far for the entry, and the entry will not be entered into the scoring system except as a “void”, which does not affect scoring in any way. No money will be refunded, but the player has no further obligation to complete his or her entry, and is free to purchase another if he or she wishes. Once all games have been completed and the entry turned in for scoring by the scorekeeper, the void option is no longer available for that entry. A completed entry may be submitted for scoring at any time, so if a void is desired, the scorekeeper must be notified immediately upon completion of the entry.
Once the player has begun to play their entry, he or she may not take the scorecard from the scorekeeper, whether it is complete, incomplete, or void. Players who begin an entry should remain present to complete the entry, except in cases of logistical challenges or emergency conditions. Any entry left unattended for 2 hours or longer may be suspended and turned in to be held by tournament officials. These entries will automatically be voided if left uncompleted.
Each player’s score on each machine is ranked against all other scores on the same machine during the qualifying portion of the tournament. The #1 overall score on each game is awarded 100 qualifying points, making a qualifying score of 500 the highest possible qualifying score in the tournament. The second highest score on each machine is awarded 90 points. The third highest score is awarded 85 points, and then the points decrease by one with each lower score until they reach zero.
Example: At PAPA 15 in 2012, Keith Elwin was the #1 Qualifier. The games available in Division A were:
- 1. AC/DC
- 2. Tales from the Crypt
- 3. Congo
- 4. Jackbot
- 5. Goldeneye
- 6. Flash Gordon
- 7. Godzilla
- 8. Radical!
- 9. Scared Stiff
- 10. Taxi
For Keith’s qualifying entry, he chose to play:
- 1. Jackbot
- 2. Taxi
- 3. Godzilla
- 4. Congo
- 5. Tales from the Crypt
- Keith’s score on Jackbot was the best of anyone during the tournament, so it scored him 100 qualifying points.
- Keith’s score on Taxi was also first overall, scoring him an additional 100 qualifying points (200 through two games).
- Keith’s score on Godzilla was was 22nd overall for 66 additional points (266 through three games).
- Keith’s fourth game was Congo, 11th best, for 77 additional qualifying points (343 through 4 games).
- Keith’s final game, Taxi, was the worst game of his five game entry, finishing as the 85th best overall Taxi score of the tournament for only 3 additional qualifying points.
Keith’s final qualifying score of 346 points through five games was good enough to qualify first overall. At PAPA 15, the top 16 qualifying scores advanced to the finals, with the qualifying cut-off that particular year at 237 points. It is important to note the total number of points needed to qualify will change from year to year depending on how players perform on the games and rank against one another.
PAPA Qualifying Points System: All scores posted on a particular machine, including multiple entries from individual players, are maintained in a ranking. Point values are assigned to each position in this ranking. The overall score of a particular entry is the total of the point values assigned to its ranked scores on the selected machines for that entry. Because the rankings will change as new scores are posted on each machine, the overall score of each entry may change as the qualifying rounds progress.
It is important to note that each entry is scored separately from other entries, based on the sum of the point values for the ranking of its scores on the selected machines. Each entry a player completes has its own score, and there is no consistent way to compile a score based on “best of” results, nor is this the intent of the tournament system. The intent is to reward consistently good play within a single entry. Players should be aware that on each entry, they are also competing with their own previous entries on the selected machines. Remember that a player may void an entry at any time during its play, but once turned in by the scorekeeper, no entry may be voided by the player for any reason.
In the event of two or more scores on a machine being exactly tied, the highest point value of the tied positions will be awarded for each such score.
There are no scoring normalizers or other adjustments. Scores cannot be compared across divisions. As the qualifying rounds progress, players may wish to adjust their choice of qualifying machines according to the scores already posted, as well as their personal skills and preferences.
The rank of the player’s result on each machine contributes the following points to the score for that entry.
- 1st = 100 points
- 2nd = 90
- 3rd = 85
- 4th down to 87th
- 84 down to 1
Important issues regarding the PAPA Qualifying format:
- Scores are NOT interchangeable between entries, and players can have only one entry with a scorekeeper at a given time. Once a player begins a five-game entry, all scores must remain on that specific entry until it is either turned in to be recorded or voided by the player.
- Because scores are not interchangeable between entries, players must compete against all qualifying scores that have been previously recorded, including their own.
- Players are permitted to choose a different set of five games with each entry if they desire.
Benefits of the PAPA Qualifying Format: In the PAPA Qualifying system, a player is forced into stringing several high-quality games together at once, as opposed to repeating the same game again and again until the desired score is reached. By forcing players to play five different games on a single entry, the PAPA Qualifying system rewards consistently good play across multiple styles of machines, and it is virtually impossible for a less-skilled player to “buy” their way into the final rounds by playing significantly more entries than anyone else.
Drawbacks of the PAPA Qualifying Format: The benefit of this qualifying format can also be viewed as its weakness. The PAPA qualifying format is very difficult and can be discouraging to less-skilled players, often leading to a smaller prize pool than other formats where players can repeat games until they achieve the score they desire.
Also, competitors are not forced to play all of the games in a qualifying bank, potentially causing some competitors to avoid more difficult, faster playing games and create queue problems on what are perceived as easier playing games early in the tournament. As the tournament progresses, however, the “value” on the more difficult playing games tends to encourage players to return to them toward the end of the qualifying period.
Best Game Qualifying:
Best Game Qualifying, also known among some tournament directors as the “Herb” format, is one of the most common qualifying formats in competitive pinball. The tournament begins with a preselected number of games designated as the tournament bank. The players are encouraged to purchase tickets, where each ticket represents a single game that can be played on any of the tournament machines. A competitor may play each game one after the other or repeat the same game until he or she achieves the desired score.
At the end of the qualifying period, only a player’s highest score on each pinball machine is counted toward his or her qualifying ranking. For instance, if a player has played the same game twenty five times, only the highest single score of those twenty five games is recorded and the other twenty four are forgotten.
It is important to note that some tournaments may have more games available in the tournament bank than count toward a player’s qualifying ranking. In these instances, players are not forced to play all of the games if they do not wish to do so.
All scores between players are ranked in the same fashion as PAPA Qualifying: 100 points for the best overall score on a game, 90 points for the second highest score on a game, 85 points for the third highest score, and then decreasing by one point per position down to zero. Competitors are not forced to play every game in the qualifying bank, but if they realistically expect to qualify for the final rounds, they must at least play the maximum number of games counted toward their qualifying score.
Example: At the 2011 Northwest Pinball Championships, Cayle George qualified fourth overall. The games available in qualifying were:
- Space Invaders
- World Cup Soccer
- The Shadow
- World Poker Tour
- Rolling Stones
Cayle played every game at least once. Any scores lower than those listed below did not count toward Cayle’s final qualifying ranking.
- Cayle’s highest score on Supersonic was third overall, scoring him 85 qualifying points.
- Cayle’s highest score on Space Invaders was 18th, scoring him 70 points (155 total through two games).
- Cayle’s highest score on World Cup Soccer was 15th, earning him 73 points (228 through three games).
- Cayle’s highest score on The Shadow was the 1st, earning him 100 points (328 through four games).
- Cayle’s highest score on Jackbot was 5th, earning him 83 additional qualifying points (411 through five games).
- Cayle’s highest score on World Poker Tour was 6th, earning him 82 qualifying points (493 through six games).
- And finally, Cayle’s highest score on Rolling Stones was 22nd, earning him 66 additional qualifying points.
- Cayle’s total score of 559 qualifying points was fourth best among all players.
In the above example, the Northwest Pinball Championships allowed 16 players into the final round with the cutoff at 509 points. It is important to note the total number of points needed to qualify will change from year to year depending on how players perform on the games and rank against one another. In this example, the highest possible qualifying score would be first place on all seven games, or 700 points, but the actual number one qualifier was Keith Elwin with 605.
Benefits of the Best Game Qualifying Format: Competitors are permitted to play the same game repeatedly if desired, leading to a comfort level on each machine that tends to bring out high scores. Also, since each game played stands alone as a separate entry, players are less likely to be discouraged by a poor performance and frequently repeat a difficult playing games again and again until they achieve their desired score, building the prize pool higher than many other formats where consistent play is rewarded more than single high scores. Players are forced to play every game in the qualifying bank.
Drawbacks of the Best Game Qualifying Format: Because each game played stands alone as its own entry and only the highest single score counts for each player, the Best Game Qualifying Format gives players who are less-skilled, or inconsistent, an opportunity to qualify over better or more consistent players by playing a significantly higher number of entries. At popular tournaments, this drawback is reduced because the length of the lines will inherently limit the number of times any one competitor can enter.
Bracket tournaments are one of the most common methods of organizing competition. All players are either seeded randomly or by some predetermined criteria and entered into their appropriate locations on a corresponding bracket. Players compete head-to-head and either advance in the bracket or are eliminated. Bracket tournaments are also a common finals format after qualifying has finished.
When running a bracket tournament, directors are encouraged to use the iPad app Brackelope, created by Isaac Ruiz.
Pin-Golf has been adapted in a variety of ways, but the basic format is always the same. A set number of games are chosen, typically 9 or 18, where each game represents a hole on a golf course. Players advance through each game and are asked to achieve a target score representing par for the hole. The players’ scores are represented by the number of balls (turns) it took them to achieve par. Just like in golf, the player with the lowest combined score at the end of the round wins.
As an example, a typical Pin-Golf setup for Attack from Mars would be 1 billion points. If Player one scored 1 billion points on ball two, his score for the hole would be two. If player two subsequently took three turns to achieve 1 billion points, his or her score for the hole would be three. Once the target score is achieved by all players in the group, everyone advances to the next hole together. Two important things to remember regarding pin-golf:
1: Games are nearly always set to allow more than three balls per player in the event players need more than three turns to achieve the target score. On most modern games, this adjustment is available in the software settings.
2: Many tournaments set a maximum number of turns allowed for players on each hole in the event the target score is too high. Pin-golf is a great way to bring new players into pinball, and directors should set a maximum score for each hole so no novice competitors are forced to play 10+ turns while others in their group have finished in 1.
Single-Attempt tournaments are a common way to give multiple players a competitive experience in a short amount of time. In this format, each player is given one game on the selected machine(s). When each player has finished his or her game(s), the tournament either advances to the final rounds or the tournament ends.