Pinball league ramps up for second season

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The Firefly Charlottesville Pinball League’s first match of the season takes place on April 14. All skill levels are welcome. Photo: Martyn Kyle The Firefly Charlottesville Pinball League’s first match of the season takes place on April 14. All skill levels are welcome. Photo: Martyn Kyle

When Dan Purdy walks into his bank, the tellers know to pull out a couple stacks of rolled quarters. No nickels needed, and there’s certainly no cause for pennies. Purdy can tell the good rolls (government issued) from the bad (locally rolled, riddled with other coins), but he’ll make use of a change machine if need be. Dan Purdy is a pinball player. He plays almost every day, either on machines he owns or at various locations in the region. On Thursdays, you can find him at Firefly, where he runs the Firefly Charlottesville Pinball League.

Beginning its second season on April 14, the league is still in its infancy. It formed thanks to Purdy, Firefly owner Melissa Meece and the restaurant’s pinball machine owner and operator, David Brizzolara.

When the establishment opened in November 2014, a scant two pinball machines occupied one wall. “[Dan] came in and said, ‘You know, if you had four, we could have a pinball league here,’” recalls Meece.

“I remember being so stoked when I saw that fourth game show up,” says Purdy. “The next day, I was sending out e-mails [about starting the league].”

Now, with one season under its belt, the league has a steady membership but always welcomes new or drop-in players. The Firefly league’s first season champion, John Stone, started as a drop-in player.

“I was living in Cleveland and my neighborhood bar was just a place that had a number of pinball machines,” says Stone. “My friends became really competitive, playing it whenever we’d go to the bar. Then, it turned into a pinball league. Once I moved [to Charlottesville] to start a new job, the first thing I sought out was a pinball league here.” Others have been drawn in by the chiming bells of a ball hitting its mark, the tinny arcade music and the triumphant cheers of league play. “We’ll have people just approach us; they’re interested in what we’re doing,” says Stone.

The Dominion Pinball League—which is bigger and more established—has a high amount of overlap with players in the Firefly league, including Purdy and Stone. “The Firefly league is kind of the new kid on the block,” says Purdy. “The scene is younger, hip—and there’s better beer.”

Equally important is the support that Meece and her staff give to the league, including everything from social media posting to a well-stocked change machine for an endless supply of those all-important quarters.

Pinball involves skill and physical strategies, from flipper manipulation to mastering the plunge (putting the ball in play), but for players like Purdy and Stone, the real pleasure is in progressing through the established rules within each individual machine and the era in which it was created. “If you want to get deeper into pinball, you have to be able to play 1960s electro-mechanical games, 1970s EM and solid-state games, 1980s games [like those at Firefly]. You have to be able to walk into Main Street Arena and play newer games,” says Purdy. “You have to not take it for granted that you can play pinball because you played at the local laundromat.” For many league players, interest in pinball is single-minded and doesn’t extend to PlayStation, Xbox or even other arcade games like Big Buck Hunter. “That’s money better spent on quarters,” jokes Stone.

League members save quarters in other ways as well. Unlike in other leagues, there are no weekly or seasonal dues for the Firefly Charlottesville Pinball League. “The whole goal is that anyone can join at any time,” says Stone. “It’s not supposed to be exclusionary.”

The Firefly league has quarterly seasons each year and meets weekly. Players are split into two groups according to skill level. Each person plays each machine once, taking turns. “It can get in your head,” says Purdy. “Waiting there, watching someone just destroy the machine with a monster score and then you realize that you have to step up and try to match that.”

While other leagues and tournaments boast cash prizes of thousands of dollars, the Firefly Charlottesville Pinball League keeps it simple. “For us, it’s just bragging rights,” says Stone.

Firefly league pinball

Space Shuttle (1984)

Using pinballs to knock down targets, players spell out the word SHUTTLE on the playfield. You get extra points and a ball bonus for also spelling out USA in the same way.

Season 1 high score: John Stone 3,461,850

High Speed (1986)

This game is the first occurrence of a multi-ball jackpot. Legend has it that this machine is based on the game designer’s real-life, high-speed police chase in California.

Season 1 high score: John Stone 5,111,210

Pin-Bot (1986)

Players navigate the solar system in this game, traversing from Pluto in to the Sun. Multi-ball mode is achieved in this game by positioning two pinballs into the glowing eye sockets of the titular robot.

Season 1 high score: Dan Purdy 3,917,680

Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray (1990)

In a game where the goal is to get cool points, each action is part of an effort to collect hipness and ratchet up the Dude-O-Meter. This was one of the last games to use an alphanumeric display before dot matrix became the norm.

Season 1 high score: Dan Purdy 10,983,510

“The Firefly league is kind of the new kid on the block,” says Dan Purdy. “The scene is younger, hip—and there’s better beer.”

What’s your favorite game in town?

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