Pinball Tournament Formats: A Comprehensive Guide
Pinball competitions are not all alike - when it comes to playing in tournaments, there are a whole bunch of different formats you can compete in. Some formats are casual and easy to hop in, others call for lengthy qualifying rounds and elaborate finals brackets, and others are silly but good fun. In any case, playing in tournaments is tons of fun - and while there are certainly players who are extremely competitive and take everything very seriously, many people who play in tournaments are far more interested in the social aspect of playing some games with good friends, having a couple of drinks, and celebrating the exciting highs and lows of friendly competition (the cash prizes don't hurt, either).
I’ve been playing pinball competitively in New England for about eight years and have seen many formats over that period. While currently, I’m sitting on an IFPA rank of 1500 or so, I’ve been in the top 500 in the past (COVID certainly helped out there). Generally, I play in two or three tournaments a month, and while most of them are in the match play or knockout families, I’ve certainly had exposure to the vast majority of what’s listed below.
Note that my experiences about what makes each format fun are pretty subjective, and my insight as to how I try to succeed is what works for me but to each their own! Hopefully, this can give you a good idea of what you can expect to see at different types of pinball tournaments.
Qualifying vs. Finals
Pinball tournaments can be separated into two phases: a qualifier round and a finals round. I'll argue that this is a bit of a misnomer - if you play in a tournament and don't make it past the current round of qualifying, that doesn't mean you didn't compete! Usually, separating into two phases is meant to conserve time. After all, if a couple of hundred players are competing, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to create a bracket that many rounds deep.
The main reason to note that there's a distinction is that tournaments will often have a different format for qualifying than for finals. For instance, you'll seldom see conventional tournament brackets outside the final rounds, as seeding usually needs to be determined in a qualifier beforehand. Similarly, it's uncommon to see a Match Play tournament conclude without some final playoff bracket.
But not all tournaments do this: for instance, knockout tournaments rarely have a qualifying round. The most important thing to understand is that if your tournament does have two separate phases of qualifiers, the format of the tournament is very likely going to be different in the first phase from the second. Be sure you’re familiar with how the tournament works the whole way through!
Common Pinball Tournament Formats
Let’s start off with a few tournaments that are seen pretty frequently. These tournaments are easy to run, fun to play in, and simple to understand, and are generally the most frequently run among not-so-competitive circles.
- Popularity: Common
- Complexity: Low
- Energy: Very casual
- Length: 2-3 hours, but can be longer
- Rules Summary: Lose games, get strikes. Three strikes, and you’re out!
Knockout tournaments are probably the most common kind of casual tournament. They're easy to run, easy to join, super simple to understand, and tons of fun. The premise is simple - you will be put into a group of four players and play one game. Third and fourth place get a strike; first and second are safe. Three strikes, and you're out of the tournament. The last person standing wins! (And obviously, when you're down to two or three players, only the lowest place in the group gets a strike.)
Knockouts are tons of fun and generally move quickly. There are a couple of other variations on the structure of strikes. "Fair Strikes" tournaments give strikes out in a 0/1/1/2 distribution (meaning first place gets no strikes, last place gets two), but also usually require five strikes to be eliminated. "Progressive Strikes" give strikes out as 0/1/2/3, typically requiring nine strikes or so. The number of strikes isn't fixed, though - tournaments can have as many strikes as they want. Obviously, the more strikes required to be eliminated, the longer the tournament will go.
Match Play Tournaments
- Popularity: Common
- Complexity: Low-medium
- Energy: Varies, but rarely super-competitive
- Length: 4-8 hours
- Rules Summary: Winning games = you get points. The more points, the higher rank you have.
These tournaments are pretty simple: in a round of match play, you'll be assigned a machine with three other players and play one game. Based on how that game goes, you'll be awarded some points based on the scoring scheme, which varies from tournament to tournament - 7/5/3/1 is a common one, meaning the highest score among the group gets 7 points, the second highest gets 5, etc. In subsequent rounds, groups are often organized by current score (meaning the highest-scoring players will play against the other highest-scoring players), although completely random groups are also common.
There are a couple of variations on how scoring is handled, but the goal is always to score the most points, so it shouldn’t change too much. A more significant variation is the number of games you play with a group in a round (such as playing four games in a row with the same four players rather than just one game), but again, this doesn’t change too much as far as strategy is concerned. After a predetermined time has passed, no new qualifying rounds will start, and players will be ranked based on how many points they’ve accumulated. The rankings can either be used to seed a final round or can just be the final results for the main tournament itself.
Match Play Variants
There exist quite a few variations on match play tournaments aside from the scoring, though! While the structure is the same, the timing and group sizes can vary! Some match play tournaments will use unusual scoring methods (such as 1/0/0/0, where only the winner gets a point) or pair players in groups of two rather than four (often called head-to-head match play).
Target Match Play
Another more dramatic change is Target Match Play, where instead of concluding the match play rounds after a certain time, the match play round ends after a certain number of players reach a certain threshold. For instance, you could have a tournament where the first eight players to reach 30 points qualify and then have a playoff. I've even played in tournaments where the first player to reach the threshold just instantly wins the tournament.
Max Match Play
There are also Max Match Play tournaments, where the number of rounds isn't determined by time but determined by rounds. So, instead of playing until a certain time of day, there are just a guaranteed number of rounds. Again, this doesn't change much strategically other than making it easier to figure out your standings. These tournaments also move much quicker, as the rounds can start asynchronously (i.e., you don’t have to wait for everyone else to finish their game before you start your next one).
- Popularity: Common
- Complexity: Medium
- Energy: Polarizing; generally either super competitive or very casual
- Length: Casually ~1-2 hours, competitively ~5 hours
- Rules Summary: Try to reach “par” scores on machines in as few balls as possible.
This is where things can get a little funky: Pingolf is a much different animal than any of the tournaments mentioned above. Whereas in most tournaments, the goal is to get a higher score than the other players, in Pingolf, you'll play through a "course" (series of machines) where each "hole" (machine) will have its own "par" (target score) you're trying to reach in as few balls as possible. Machines are usually set to 5-ball play, and the par will be plainly posted. Each ball you use to reach that par counts as 1 "stroke," and the goal is to have the lowest stroke count at the end of the course.
So, for instance, let's say you're playing a game where the par score is 1,000,000 points. If you get to 1,000,000 points in one ball, that's a hole-in-one and will count as one strokes. But if after ball 1, you only have 500,000, you'd need to play another ball. If you get to 1,000,000 on that ball, you'd note down a 2. If you don't get to 1,000,000 after five balls, then you'll get additional strokes.
Sometimes, failing to reach the par gives you six strokes, but some pingolf tournaments have a scoring structure that penalizes you harder the further you fall short. For instance, if you only made it halfway after five balls, you might get an eight. Didn’t even get a quarter of the way there? You’re looking at a ten. (The scoring structure is usually plainly posted on each machine, so you won’t have to memorize tables or anything like that.)
As far as tournaments go, Pingolf changes strategy more than any other format. Whereas in match play, it’s all about scoring as high as possible to beat everyone else, pingolf is all about reaching that par. I could go on for hours with examples, but this basically means that you shouldn’t go for high-risk, long-term strategies (such as going for Tour the Mansion in Addams Family), instead focusing on immediate payoffs which get you the points you need and nothing further.
In any case, this is a super fun format and is great if you’re just getting involved with competitive play. Since you’re not immediately competing with the players in your group, there’s a much more positive attitude towards the games you play in qualifying - not to say that a knockout tournament is particularly cutthroat, but watching someone blow a game up doesn’t feel nearly as stressful in pingolf as it does in another format. Give it a shot! It’s fun and forces you to rethink all of your strategies, all in a pretty positive environment that gets you in on a ton of different games.
Uncommon Pinball Tournament Formats
It’s worth noting that while I call these “uncommon,” your local circle might run them more frequently than mine does. In any case, these tournaments tend to be a bit more eccentric and have more unusual rules than what we’ve already gone over.
- Popularity: Uncommon
- Complexity: Medium-low
- Energy: Casual, but can be hectic
- Length: Usually 2 hours
- Rules Summary: Play as many games as fast as you can. Forget rounds; this is about speed!
Also known as "Pinball! Pinball! Pinball!" these are similar to match play tournaments with a few key differences: first, matches are (usually) head-to-head instead of a four-player group. But more significantly, there’s no round structure: you will be put on a machine and play a 1v1 game with the winner scoring a point. When the game ends, you'll be put into a queue and will play another 1v1 game as soon as someone else is available for another game, as opposed to waiting for everyone to start at the same time. After a set time limit, no new games will begin. From there, the rankings can be used to determine seeding for a final round or can just be the final standings for the tournament.
In case it’s not clear, this means that you’re not guaranteed to play the same number of games as everyone else. So, rankings are generally determined by the number of wins, and ties are broken by the number of losses. Simple enough: if you have more wins than everyone else, you'll win. If someone has the same number of wins as you, whoever lost fewer games will hold the tiebreaker.
- Popularity: Very uncommon, often annual (to coincide with the start/end of the NFL season)
- Complexity: Low
- Energy: Pretty casual but exciting
- Length: ~4-5 hours
- Rules Summary: Draft a game to be your home stadium. Play sixteen head-to-head games, half of them at home.
This is basically head-to-head match play, except at the start of the tournament, there's a "draft" where you pick one game to be your "home stadium." You'll then play sixteen one-on-one games, with half of your games being at your home stadium and half of your games "on the road" at other players' stadiums. Usually, the draft order is determined by IFPA ranking, with higher rankings picking later. After everyone plays their games, a finals bracket will be formed, with the players having the best record qualifying and/or getting a higher seed.
Obviously, you want to pick a game you both enjoy playing and are good at for your home stadium. Otherwise, you'll get exhausted playing the same game over and over again or will end up losing to players that know the game better. But that's about it as far as strategy is concerned. This is a super fun and casual format, and the draft to start everything off is very exciting.
Finals can be complicated, though. Some tournaments will create "divisions" like the NFL has, where you play against players in your division more than players outside your division, qualifying for finals including wildcard spots and division championships, having brackets based on "conferences," etc. But I've also seen "the best eight records play in the playoffs." If you're unsure, ask the TD (Tournament Director).
- Popularity: Rare
- Complexity: Medium
- Energy: Anarchic (but pretty casual)
- Length: 4-8 hours
- Rules Summary: It’s match play, but with ability cards.
Fans of Magic: The Gathering should definitely check this one out. Critical Hit tournaments are structured exactly like match play tournaments, with a catch: the inclusion of special cards which - for lack of a better term - give you special powers. Usually, you'll receive a couple of cards to start out and get the ability to buy more cards (often by making charitable donations) or win them by completing side-quests or high scores on the games you're playing.
While there's not really a universal deck used from tournament to tournament, the effects on cards include simple effects such as "change the game you're supposed to play" and "ask for someone else to help you out prior to this game." The more insane ones include "cover the scoring display for the duration of this game," "pull the game you're playing from the tournament," "re-play your entire game", "shake someone else's game prior to them plunging to use up their tilt warnings", and "end target player's ball now, they get a compensation ball after this game."
The only advice I’d give you is to familiarize yourself with what the cards can do so you can be (somewhat) prepared. This is chaos incarnate, and I live for it. Don’t expect to be playing multiple cards every round, however - but expect to see plenty of them get played over the course of the day.
All the formats above can be used as either a qualifying format or a finals format (except for pin-football, which has both built-in), but the following are used as one or the other. For instance, you won’t see a “qualifying bracket,” whatever that would be. Not to say these are inherently more competitive or special than what we’ve already gone over; it’s just worth noting that these aren’t complete formats; they’re halves.
Best Game Qualifying
- Popularity: Commonly used in “Selfie Leagues” and larger tournaments
- Complexity: Low
- Energy: Depends on the size of the tournament
- Length: Can go for days
- Rules Summary: Play a series of games some number of times; your best game on each machine is ranked against others.
Unlike the qualifying formats mentioned above, this type of qualifying is played as a series of single-player games. Basically, you’ll have a bank of machines and play some number of games on each machine, depending on the tournament. For each game, your score will be ranked among other players also attempting to qualify. Based on how your score ranks among others, you will be given some number of points, and your score over all the games will determine your rank. For instance, whoever gets the best score on a given machine could earn 100 points. Second place could get 90, third 85, fourth 84, and each position after that gets one point less than the last. Obviously, the scoring scheme may vary.
Only your best game will count on each machine. So, if you happened to play two games on one machine and put up the two best scores of the day, the second-place score will basically be ignored. You’re only getting one score per game, so try and put up the best scores you can on each machine for the best chance at moving forward!
This kind of qualifying is used in a couple of different ways. A larger-scale tournament (such as one with several hundred players) might use this with lengthy queues to try each game and can reduce a player pool from several hundred down to a couple of dozen. Give it your best shot, and try to put up some solid scores!
The other main way this is used is the selfie league, which is significantly more casual than a tournament with 400 players involved. Selfie leagues are simple: the league will be open on some number of games at a public location (such as at a pinball bar or an arcade). The timeframe for the league will be published clearly, such as a period of two weeks or a month. You can play any number of games that you want during that time and submit a score that you’ve put up on your own. To do that, you just have to take a selfie with your score and submit the photo to the league’s site. From there, it’s the same kind of best-game qualifying and can be used to determine the winner of the league or some kind of finals bracket later.
- Popularity: Frequently & exclusively used at larger tournaments
- Complexity: High
- Energy: Very competitive and serious
- Length: Often goes for a couple of days, though individual entries take ~90 minutes
- Rules Summary: Play a series of games on your own, scoring points for how your score compares to others.
Also known as “PAPA-Style Qualifying,” Card-Based Qualifying is similar to the Best Game format but depends more on consistent play. Like the Best Game format, you’ll play a series of games as single-player games. Likewise, your scores will be compared to everyone else’s scores, with each score being worth a certain number of points based on how it ranks up. There are two major differences: first, all scores are ranked, even if they’re not your best. More importantly, your scores are tied together in groups called “cards” rather than being independent scores.
Each card you play will usually come with its own entrance fee and will have you play some number of games. You get to pick the games you play, but the scores you put up will be tied to the card you just played rather than you as a player. So, if you put up the best score of the day on one machine, that score will only matter for the card you’re playing. If the rest of the card is pretty poor, then that best score won’t really help you qualify. In case this sounds like it’s “pay-to-win,” it isn’t. One good entry will beat a dozen bad ones!
This is arguably one of the most difficult pinball tournaments to wrap one's head around. While it might seem like it makes sense to repeatedly try the same games, as you’ll get more practice, it also means you're competing against yourself. If you beat a score you put up on an earlier entry, you just reduced a previous entry's value. So, it's probably best to divvy up your entries and play different games. If you're comfortable at one game and feel you can be consistently good at it, it's not a bad idea to keep trying that one; just remember that you don't want to devalue earlier entries by beating them (that is, unless you devalue it with a significantly better ticket).
It should also be noted that this kind of qualifying is significantly more competitive than others. It’s very conducive to multi-day events, so it tends to attract larger pools of players to compete with. Plus, you don't necessarily know what you're shooting for score-wise (since subsequent scores can dethrone you), and there's likely to be some waiting around for your turn on a table (especially if the bank is small and the player pool is large). But there's no harm in giving it one or two entries. After all, it might take a couple of top-10 scores on a game to lock a seat in the finals!
- Popularity: Common
- Complexity: Medium-low
- Energy: Varies
- Length: About 2 hours/round, but it depends on the bracket structure
- Rules Summary: Your generic tournament bracket, pinball-style.
These are pretty much what you'd expect: a bracket based on seeding, where you play against another player or group of players, and the top scorers move on. These can be head-to-head brackets (i.e., 1v1) or group brackets (i.e., four-players). In the former, you usually play some number of rounds (such as best of five or seven), where the higher seed gets to pick either the game that’s played or the order that they’d play (such as going first or second), and the lower seed gets to pick whatever wasn’t chosen. Usually, the higher seed will pick a game, and the lower seed will choose to play second, though the higher seed can defer this choice.
In a four-player group, you play some number of rounds with a match play scoring scheme. The highest seed gets a choice of order or game, and then the remaining seeds get to pick from what’s left. Usually, this means the highest seed picks the game, the second highest seed will choose to play last, the third seed will go third, and the lowest seed will go second. But it could mean that the highest seed could elect to go last, at which point the second highest seed could pick the game or go first, second or third, etc. There are a ton of ways this could play out, but the short version is the higher your seed, the better your advantage.
- Popularity: Rare
- Complexity: Low
- Energy: Very competitive
- Length: ~3-4 hours, but your involvement will vary
These are generally reserved for longer tournaments. Basically, after seeding is established, a "ladder" is formed, beginning with the four lowest seeds. They'll play one game. Whoever has the lowest score in that game is eliminated, and the next lowest seed takes their place and plays another game. It's pretty simple and means you only have to beat one other player to stay afloat. The downside is that there are much fewer games to be played than in a traditional bracket.
- Popularity: Almost always used for pingolf tournaments, hardly ever used elsewhere.
- Complexity: Medium
- Energy: Pretty competitive
- Length: ~2 hours/round, depending on how the rounds play out
- Rules Summary: Pingolf scoring, but structured like a traditional bracket.
If a pingolf tournament begins and goes to a final round, the scoring may play differently. Should you play in a seeded group or bracket, it’ll play very similarly to any matchplay finals where the top seed will get order or choice of game, and you play a set of games with the best score(s) moving on. The caveat here is that pingolf scoring still applies, meaning all that matters is reaching that target score, with the added stipulation of having to beat the players you’re grouped against.
This just means you have more to be aware of. Granted, if you’re playing a series of four games, in the first two or three games, you just need to go for the best score you can. But by the time you reach the last game, it should become abundantly clear what you need to score to move on. This means you might not even have to reach par - for instance, if you would move on so long as you get no worse than a seven on a hole, then you just have to reach the score that would lock you in for a 7. It’s all about awareness - but still, play your best since situations where you only need a certain score are not super common.
Unsanctioned Tournament Formats
The following tournaments aren’t really recognized by the IFPA as official tournament formats, but they’re still lots of fun. You also don’t have to set anything up to run them; if you have a handful of players, why not try playing in some of these wacky ways?
Have you ever played the basketball game “knockout?” This is basically that but in pinball form. You line up a group of players on one game, and one person starts playing. When someone puts a ball in a place where the machine holds the game (such as a scoop, saucer, or lock), they shout out “stall!” and then run to the back of the line. The next person in line takes over. If you drain, you’re out. Rinse and repeat until only one player remains! In this format, the score doesn’t matter. Just shoot for a hole and get away from the machine; that’s all that matters here.
Another relatively silly format, this one is basically match play, except you are allotted some number of poker chips which you wager in betting rounds. The difference between pinball poker and classic poker is that you’re not gambling on a hand of cards; you’re betting on who will win your game. Between each ball, there’s a betting round where you either have to increase your bet or concede the game. The only thing it lacks from poker is the mind games; it’s tough to bluff someone out of a good position if they have a comfortable lead. Regardless, it’s still fun to try out.
Split-flipper tournaments can fall in any format; the difference isn’t in the tournament structure; it’s in how you actually play. Split-flipper tournaments are played with a partner, where you and your teammate each control one flipper button at the table. It’s certainly an interesting experience, but honestly, it’s not something you need to play as a part of a tournament! Grab a friend, split a game, and try to coordinate your flips, shots, and saves.
Other Tournament Formats
The thing about competitive pinball is that TDs are always looking for new ways to come up with new and fun ways to challenge competitors. These tournaments may not always be IFPA sanctioned, but there are tons of other fun formats that aren’t seen too often: one-handed tournaments (exactly what it sounds like), the Pinball Olympics (machines modified in extremely bizarre ways to make them more challenging), Amazing Race, Pin-Bowling, and more.
One time I played in an “American Pinja Warrior” event at a convention that involved racing to complete objectives on different machines as quickly as possible, which was good fun, but I haven’t seen it since. Keep your eyes peeled - there’s bound to be some fun events around you, or better yet, if you have an idea for a format, talk to a TD you know about making it a reality!