California Extreme returns to South Bay: Pinball resurgence nears peak popularity

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San Francisco has never been a destination for pinball, until now. The resurgence of the game is real and like many things— what goes around comes around. 

If you’re not familiar with the game bars, you’ve likely at least come across one, especially in San Francisco. Business Weekly called the concept one of the top-grossing new business models in America. Places like Emporium in the Western Addition, Coin-Op in SoMa and the Castro’s Brewcade, which claims to be SF’s “first arcade/beer bar” are popping up throughout the city. 

But in the South Bay, California Extreme—an arcade game and pinball celebration— was held for the first time 21 years ago. Back then it was at an abandoned store in San Jose’s Town & Country Village mall, which would eventually be demolished to make way for what is now Santana Row. 

With about 150 games total and an attendance of about 500 people, it was a modest event by today’s standard. This year’s event will be held July 28 and 29 at Santa Clara’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. For $60, gamers will be able to leave their quarters “in the ashtray” of their cars, according to the event’s website. All consoles and 600 pinball machines will be on free play. Day passes will also be available for purchase. 

“We’ve become a destination,” said Shon Dolcini, 36, of San Rafael. He’s a pinball operator who maintains, fixes, cleans and rents 250 machines out to locations like Haight-Ashbury’s Free Gold Watch, but also at bars.%INLINE% 

“I’m at over 20 locations; mostly bars in San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin.” 

When Brewcade opened in 2014, Dolcini, along with the bar’s owners, “went through hoops” with the city to help get archaic San Francisco truancy and gaming laws changed. Those laws limited the number of pinball machines allowed in one place and placed restrictions on their distance from schools so kids wouldn’t be tempted to play hooky. 

In addition, tech companies such as Google, Twitter, Weebly and others rent out his machines and set them on free play for their employees at work.

The pinball industry was all but dead in the ‘90s. “People were giving machines away for free,” Dolcini said over the phone. 

Despite places like Alameda’s Pacific Pinball Museum, founded in 2004, he said the game’s resurgence in the Bay Area kicked in around 2010 and that the value of certain machines has skyrocketed. That was the year he bought a machine manufactured by Gottlieb called ‘Raven’ for $50 that was “missing a ramp.” 

“No one made them anymore so it was useless.” Luckily for him, one turned up on Ebay about three years later. Just last year he sold that once “useless” game for $1,500. 

But if you want to become a pinball ‘flipper’ (pardon the pun) there’s plenty of maintenance involved. “They’re like a car. You need to tune it up pretty regularly. There’s so many moving parts. Anything that moves is going to break,” he said.%INLINE% 

In 2008 Dolcini combed Craigslist and the Internet and invested in what are considered to be rarities, spending $350 to $800 on machines no one cared about back then, but are estimated to be worth $3,000 to $8,000 today. They include early ‘80s to early ‘90s gems like ‘Solar Fire’, ‘Orbitor 1’, ‘Spectrum’, ‘Cybernaut’ and ‘Punchy The Clown’. These machines in particular had less than 1,000 in production, he said. 

His personal collection includes 40 machines he keeps in his San Rafael warehouse. They range from Gottlieb’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’, his oldest machine from 1947, to his most recent machine, 2014’s ‘Walking Dead’, by well-known pinball manufacturer, Stern. 

Dolcini plans on volunteering at this year’s California Extreme. He is familiar with one of the event’s organizers, Ken Chaney, through the local pinball community. 

“Maintenance has really been key to the resurgence in popularity,” said Chaney, a Mountain View resident who remembers working for Sun Microsystems in 1993 and how a local pizza joint had horribly neglected pinball machines. “The owner didn’t seem to care,” he said over the phone. That’s around the time his experience with the pinball community came to be. With interest and persistence, the machines at the pizza place started getting fixed and people would come in more regularly even just to get a game in. 

“‘Maybe it’s time for a collectors show for pinball and coin-operated machines?’” was a collective thought between himself and others involved. In 1997 that’s what they did. Since then, it’s been, “slow but steady growth the entire time,” Chaney said. Organizers didn’t want to get into specific attendance figures, but said for years they’ve been using the hotel’s 22,000 square-foot Grand Ballroom and have continually been adding more space to the convention including two more areas, about a third of the size Grand Ballroom, not to mention a smaller-sized room for speaker sessions.  

Echa Schneider agrees it’s a welcoming community, but it wasn’t always so, especially for women. In 2013 she founded the world’s first women-only pinball league right here in Oakland. 

Belles & Chimes is super focused on helping each other out,” she said. They’re at 21 chapters and growing rapidly in cities across the country including; Chicago, New York, Phoenix, Portland (in both Maine and Oregon), Minneapolis and others.  

“Competitive tournaments were all men,” she said in conversation over the phone. “If you said anything like, ‘Make it more inclusive,’ they’d be super dismissive or like, ‘Women aren’t interested in pinball.’ I got a ton of pushback for Bells & Chimes. I would get hate mail from random dudes in Ohio.” 

The hostility and misogyny didn’t end there. A once-common pinball phrase, “raping the shot,” referred to a shot that’s easily repeated. “Women would be like, ‘Please don’t use that word,’” Schneider explained. Asking people to not use the term as recent as five years ago was considered controversial and a source of much drama. As if they were “ruining the fun of pinball,” said Schneider.

She said the term is generally unacceptable today and in some cases, explicitly banned by leagues. 

Many consider the older machines historic or even educational, but Schneider said the worst period was the machines of the 1980s where the art is “super porny.” Geared towards teenage boys, the backglass was often decorated with images of scantily-clad, busty women. See games like ‘Cheetah’, ‘Winter Sports’, ‘Playboy’ and countless others. 

Women of all skill levels are welcome to join and play in Belles & Chimes. Some players play for years and don’t care about getting any better. “They just enjoy the environment,” Schneider said.

“Pinball is just fun. Everyone’s on their phones. It’s a way of connecting with people. It gets you out of the house. It’s physical,” she said when asked if the trend could be attributed to some kind of tech backlash.  

All three we spoke with agreed pinball’s social benefits are real. Even if you can’t join a group league, Schneider mentioned ‘selfie leagues’ like Oakland Pinball Warriors or San Francisco Super Selfie League. The concept is: you register, play on your own time on a given list of machines at specific locations and then take a selfie in front of your score and submit it.%INLINE%  

Dolcini said for some kids and young adults, they grew up with a pinball app where it virtually simulates the game, but now they get a chance to see a real machine. 

“Imagine a car show where you get to drive the car around. It broadens people’s experience and makes them happy. It preserves history,” Chaney said. 

Pinball wizards can rejoice now that San Francisco is on the map for their hobby of choice, but for the final weekend of July, Santa Clara’s California Extreme is the destination.%INLINE%