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So you’ve been playing pinball casually for a little while with your pals at the local arcade bar or at home. It’s been a fantastic experience to learn the games at your own pace in a low-pressure environment and not have to blow too much dough on a night’s entertainment. But your skills and knowledge are improving week after week, and eventually, you feel like there’s not much of a challenge anymore.
A few questions start to slowly creep into the back of your mind…
Where do I go from here?
How much better can I get?
Would I be able to stand up to the best pinball players out there?
You start to consider visiting some events outside of your local pinball community just to see how you stack up in a larger tournament. But to the uninitiated, this can seem like a very daunting step. At this point, you’re probably not very familiar with tournament formats, play etiquette, IFPA rules, or how to play each game as efficiently as possible. But you want to put yourself to the test and dip that toe into the waters of competitive pinball.
Well, you’re in luck because there is a perfect way to begin your competitive pinball career by volunteering your time at a tournament! By doing so, you will learn the ways a tournament is organized and run, learn the names of all the other tournament staff and fellow players, and then, most importantly, learn the games and how they are played in a competitive context.
#1 Learn the Ways of Competitive Pinball
Running a pinball competition can be a thankless job. The registration fees usually just barely cover the cost of acquiring the games, renting the space, and the prize pool. Most pinball competitions simply would not happen if people did not volunteer their time to make a great competition event. Volunteers are absolutely crucial for scorekeeping, especially in larger events that draw high-level players. Mind you, you’ll need to be a fast learner, very observant, and quick on your feet. You’ll also need to get comfortable with the functionality of the scorekeeping software that the tournament is using.
Always show up for your scorekeeping shift at least 5 minutes before your shift is slated to begin. If it is your absolute first time scorekeeping, then best to come 10 minutes early so you can get a quick crash course on how to operate the scorekeeper’s tablet and software.
Most likely, the tournament qualifying format will be Herb-style (“Pump & Dump”), and most likely, the software they will be using is either Matchplay Events or Drains Tournament Manager, but once in a while, you’ll be entering score data the old fashioned way on an MS Excel spreadsheet.
Understand the player etiquette involved as you notify the players and signal them to step up and begin their games. Always confirm the correct player’s name and confirm that they are good to play before they press the start button. Make sure that only tournament staff and the players at their machines are standing within the designated player area. Make sure game queues in the “on deck” area don’t get crowded and start to form a bottleneck.
Also, always be aware of the order in which you might have to take down scores; if someone has just started their first ball on a game you can generally assume that the player next to them working on ball 3 will likely need to be attended to first. It’s not always the case, but it’s a very good thing to be aware of how far each player has progressed into their game (also to be aware in case players may be tempted to cheat by restarting a game if they have a bad ball 1).
You need to avoid distraction as much as possible and be able to attend to any player who raises their hand, which is the signal that either their game is over or that they need a ruling or a tech. Now, this is the tricky part… some players will be pleased with their scores… and some won’t. Understand that you are always in control of the situation.
It’s in the player’s interest for you to concentrate and put in the correct score accurately and efficiently. You can congratulate them if their score is unusually high or give a small comment of commiseration and encouragement if the score is below their expectations. Always try to be positive or at the very least, professional in your interactions with the player.
Just confirm the player’s name, concentrate on inputting the score correctly, and get them to validate or void the entry. Even if you enter the incorrect score by mistake, it is all on them to verify when they confirm. Give the player as much time as they need to confirm their score and, as a courtesy, allow them the option to “void and re-cue” if they initially choose to simply “void”. Make sure you quickly move on to the next player who has their hand raised and so on.
I find that a good default position for a single scorekeeper watching over a bank is to always return to the middle of the bank and behind the player line if possible. Look to the left and to the right of the bank constantly as if your eyes and head were a security camera scanning back and forth. If two or more scorekeepers are volunteering, pick a section of the bank of games and evenly distribute yourselves along that row of games. Make sure you don’t all bunch up on one side or the other, and keep social conversation to an absolute minimum. Obviously, communicate with the team if you need to be covered while you go to the washroom, if your tablet is low on power or is malfunctioning, or if you need to grab a drink of water. No matter what time your shift officially says you are clocking out at, do not leave your post until the replacement scorekeeper taps you on your shoulder and relieves you.
One small note for first-time scorekeepers: avoid picking a scorekeeping shift that includes the final hour of qualifying for that bank. You will find the players will begin to get notably frustrated, exhausted and a bit anxious as they desperately scramble to qualify as the final minutes count down. It can get very hectic, and one false move, one score typo, or one seemingly innocuous comment can really set some people off. Always be calm and respectful, and know that you are in charge, even if you make a mistake.
Should that occur, simply apologize and correct the mistake as quickly and efficiently as you can. In the extremely rare case where a player continues to be belligerent, insulting, and even threatening harm, immediately call over to the Head Tournament Director. Generally, most players know that it’s not an easy task, and they are appreciative of the time and labour you have committed to making this tournament happen.
#2 Learn the Names
As mentioned before, you always need to be as quick and attentive as possible during your shift. If players see you really concentrating and processing everyone’s scores as quickly as possible, the players will definitely notice, and most will be highly appreciative of you. As the process of qualifying requires multiple attempts for players, you will eventually begin to naturally associate the names with their faces. These players, in turn will remember and recognize you from their experience with you as a scorekeeper, so try to keep it as professional and pleasant as possible.
Your life as a scorekeeper will be much easier once you have gotten to know the player base playing on your bank of games, and you will be able to identify them visually instead of barking out their name if they are late for their next game.
Now, introducing yourself to a high-level player won’t be so intimidating now that you’ve informally met them, and that person hopefully already has (even subconsciously) a good first impression of you. You will also find a great deal of camaraderie with your fellow scorekeepers during your shift. It’s good to have a positive rapport and clear communication with your co-workers, but just don’t get too chatty! Remember that you’re all there to support each other! So feel free to help out in another scorekeeper’s “section” if they are getting overwhelmed. Some of the best people I’ve ever met in the pinball community I was first introduced to as a fellow volunteer scorekeeper.
#3 Learn the Games
Here is probably the most selfish reason why you should volunteer as a scorekeeper at tournaments, especially if you’re new to pinball. Each tournament bank will have a grouping of unique games that will not necessarily be set up as “player friendly” as your typical location game. Typically, most tournament games are set up specifically to prevent extraordinarily long ball times and keep the cycle of players making qualifying attempts moving along.
As a scorekeeper you can quietly observe how these games are playing throughout the day. How tight are the tilts set up? Are the outlanes completely open? Is a game leaning to one side? How are the flippers arranged? Is a certain mech or switch not working reliably? Maybe eavesdrop on the conversations of high-level players as they discuss optimal ways to play the game.
Examine the nudging and recovery skills required to survive some of the more drain-heavy games. How to predict and avoid common “house ball” situations. What core skills are being employed in the game other than just shot accuracy? Can you alley pass, drop-catch, live-catch, post-pass, orbit pass, or tap pass on these games? Even in some games, depending on how loose the flipper mech is, a commonly reliable dead bounce can just dribble down between the flippers instead of safely bouncing over.
Observe what the average scores are and what is required to achieve an exceptional score. You can take in a whole lot of game information and strategy before you even play your first entry in a tournament by simply being aware of what is going on while you monitor as scorekeeper. You can learn not only the ways in which the games are set up but also the rules. Learn what the exploitable and lucrative features are in the games that lead to putting up big scores.
Chances are, if you’re new to pinball, the majority of your experience will be on modern Stern games you typically see on location. But if the tournament has a deep breadth of games that span all eras of pinball, your knowledge base of how these games operate and how to optimally achieve high scores on them is going to expand big time!
Another key advantage that is usually offered to volunteer scorekeepers is a special time to put in some qualifying entries dedicated exclusively to those who volunteered. If you do a really great job, the tournament director might even be generous enough to give you a few of these entries for free. This volunteer-only qualifying time can be quite significant because the wait times between games will be almost negligible, and you can really concentrate on achieving those much-needed high scores. Also, this volunteer qualifying time is typically assigned after the cut-off time for general qualifying, so if you are able to secure your appearance in the finals, no one else can knock you below the cut-off line.
So there you have it! Volunteering your time, even just for a few hours at a pinball tournament, is a helpful and enriching endeavor for all players, particularly those new to the competitive scene. And if you ever see me volunteering at the next tournament, please say “Hi!” and gimme a fist-bump! For that matter, please give a fist bump and an enthusiastic “Thank you!” to all the volunteers busting their butts while taking down scores so you can have an enjoyable tournament experience as well.