Oakland’s Pinball Wizards
The Town’s selfie pinball league is some of the cheapest fun to be had in the East Bay.
Photo by Gene X. Hwang/Orange Photography
Toward the back of West Oakland’s Ghost Town Brewing, a pinball machine lights up the dimness, strobing erratically as a shiny silver ball rockets around the table. Removed from the hustle and bustle of the main seating area, you might never guess that a lone button masher is actually in the midst of a heated tournament. But a closer look yields a hint: a blue and gold decal with the words “Oakland Pinball Warriors” is plastered across the machine’s glass facade.
OPW is a recreational selfie pinball league. Modeled after Chicago’s Level 257 Monthly Super League, which inspired a spate of similarly structured selfie leagues throughout the country several years ago, OPW’s rules are simple: Play pinball, snap a photo with your score, and email it to the league administration. At the end of the month, members who’ve recorded scores from at least four different machines can attend communal playoffs. Free to join and just $5 a pop if you opt to play in the finals — plus a few quarters for game play — it’s some of the cheapest fun to be had in the East Bay.
“I would definitely say the East Bay has a thriving pinball scene,” said Jared Garvey, a Berkeley robotics engineer who has run the league since November.
In 2014, the city council lifted Oakland’s bizarre 80-year ban on pinball — once notoriously associated with gambling — and several leagues got off the ground. OPW was founded in the spring of 2016 by Echa Schneider, an online communications professional for the city of Berkeley who moonlights as a pinball maven. (She also established Belles & Chimes, a traditional women’s pinball league that now has a chapter in Auckland in addition to cities across the United States.) Although other selfie pinball leagues currently exist in the greater Bay Area — in Concord and the South Bay, notably — OPW is the oldest selfie league in the region, save for the San Francisco Super Selfie League, which popped up around the same time.
Jane Kissler, an Oakland resident who works as the head of operations for a marketing-software startup, ran the league from August 2017 to late 2018. She started casually playing pinball with her husband, Roland Nadeau, after moving from Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2016. She caught the attention of Schneider, who invited her to join the league and ultimately handed over the reins.
“The community is very welcoming,” said Kissler, noting that the league helped the couple make friends in a new city and explore local businesses they might not have patronized otherwise.
It was a good introduction to some of the East Bay’s favorite watering holes. Scattered throughout Oakland and Emeryville, establishments like Radio Bar, The Legionnaire Saloon, and Stay Gold Deli’s two locations host 28 pinball machines, each kitschier than the next. The machines themselves are a motley collection, too, ranging from Scared Stiff — featuring a come-hither Elvira illustration leaning across the facade of the machine — to a campy White Water rafting-themed table at Stay Gold’s Temescal location.
While modern machines tend to have similarities (for example, most have slingshots to the upper right and left of the lowest set of flippers), each requires a distinct strategy. The tricks of the trade can sometimes be gleaned online, from forums or YouTube videos, or sometimes from instructions on the machine itself. However, trading strategies in person and watching experienced players tackle the machine is often the easiest method.
“You would be shocked,” said Schneider, who is also a former Oakland political news blogger. “People are surprised at how much — and how quickly — you can improve by playing around players who are really good.”
It might seem odd, then, to design a league based on solo participation. All things considered, though, it’s ideal. The selfie league structure is a more inclusive format for people who aren’t free in the evenings. Plus, as Garvey pointed out, the individual aspect helps entice newbies. The framework of a selfie league is less intimidating for those looking to dip a toe in without the pressure of 20-odd people watching. And while it doesn’t facilitate regular meet-ups outside of finals, people tend to get together anyway. “There are people who take it seriously, but most people just enjoy the social aspect,” Garvey said. “I really think of it as hanging out with my friends for a few hours.”
Coaching is encouraged, as is sharing intel, which can be crucial to mastering tricky machines like the Star Trek table at Scarlet City Coffee in Emeryville. “Coaching is why I started to feel comfortable coming out to more tournaments,” Kissler said.
Tournament winners are awarded codes for free play on the machines, but the ultimate goal of OPW is to bring more traffic to these local establishments. Players are encouraged to not just play and dash but to actually hang out and hand over some cash, whether it’s a pint at Eli’s Mile High Club on Oakland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way or a slice at Five10 Pizza on 15th Street. The league hopes this will encourage venues to see the value in hosting pinball.
Schneider noted that almost all of the venues have been very enthusiastic. Even Scarlet City Coffee, which was initially reticent to have machines installed, is now fully on board, hosting the monthly tournament on the first Sunday of the month.
“The pinball league is great,” said Peadar Kelleher, owner of Wolfhound Bar on San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland. “It has definitely boosted our traffic, and we like the type of people it brings. Pinball people are our kind of people!”
Ryan Nosek, owner of Ghost Town Brewing, has a more difficult time distinguishing OPW players from the taproom’s usual clientele. However, he’s excited to see people play, pro or not. “Having the pinball [machines] has been a great addition to our taproom,” he said. “Folks tell me often that they forgot how much fun pinball [is] and that having the machines re-sparked their love of the game.”