Competitive Pinball 101: Complete Guide to Tournaments

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Are you tired of playing pinball alone in your parent’s basement? Do you yearn for some fun, friendly competition and human interaction? Well, my pinball-loving friend, have no fear! Our competitive pinball guide is here to get you into the action right away.

As an IFPA ranked pinball player and the editor at, I will tell you everything a new player needs to know about how to get started playing pinball competitively.

What is Competitive Pinball?

Competitive pinball is like regular pinball, but with more yelling, fist bumps, and occasional tears.

It’s a sport that involves individuals competing against each other to achieve the highest score on a pinball machine. Think of it as a battle for the ages, but instead of swords and shields, you’ve got flippers and a steel ball.

Pinball tournaments are where the real magic happens.

It’s a place where you can test your skills against other pinball wizards, and where the only thing that matters is getting your name on the leaderboard. Plus, you get to pretend you’re in the World Pinball Championships final event. How awesome is that?

Tournaments are also a great place to meet like-minded people who share your love for the game. You can bond over your favorite machines, swap strategies, and even start your own pinball club. Who needs friends when you have pinball buddies, right?

Now, before you start thinking that competitive pinball is just for the pros, think again. There are divisions for players of all skill levels, from the beginners who can barely keep the ball in play to the advanced players who can hit every shot blindfolded. So, don’t be afraid to join in on the fun, even if you’re a pinball newbie.

But don’t let the pressure get to you, because at the end of the day, it’s all in good fun. And who knows, you might just walk away with a trophy, some bragging rights, and a newfound appreciation for the beauty of a perfectly executed nudge.

Local Competitive Pinball Tournament in Nashville Tennessee

How Do Pinball Tournaments Work?

First, you fork over some cash for the entry fee, usually between $5 to $20 for a local tourney. Tournament expenses are usually pretty low for local events. Then, you and a group of three other players are randomly paired with a pinball machine. The group takes turns pounding away at the flippers with the goal of getting the highest score.

Depending on the type of tournament, you might rack up points for your performance in a matchplay tourney, or get slapped with strikes in a knockout tourney. And the rounds keep going until the point where you’ve either hit the max number of strikes or the predetermined number of rounds have been played.

Finally, if the tourney has a playoff, you might have to duke it out for the grand prize, bragging rights or maybe some cash prizes. Easy-peasy, right?

How to Find Pinball Tournaments Near You

If you’re itching for some tournament excitement, there are plenty of ways to stay in the loop.

  • Keep an eye out for flyers at your local arcades and pinball bars.

  • Check out online resources like and to find events near you.

  • Join pinball community forums like and for insider information and camaraderie with fellow enthusiasts.

But if you’re feeling too lazy to do the legwork, fear not!

The IFPA event calendar is the ultimate resource for a comprehensive schedule of sanctioned events.

And if you happen to reside in Tennessee, you’re in luck! We’ve got you covered with our complete listing of events in the state here.

So no matter how you prefer to stay in the loop, there are plenty of free and easy ways to keep your pinball tournament dreams alive.

Competition Pinball Event in Tennessee

What are the Different Pinball Tournament Formats?

Pinball tournaments come in a variety of formats, each with its own set of rules and gameplay. Here are some of the most popular formats you might encounter in a pinball tournament:

  • Knockout – Players compete against each other in four-player games over a series of rounds. Depending on their finishing position in each match, players receive strikes. Once a player accumulates a predetermined number of strikes, they are eliminated from the tournament. The last player standing is declared the winner.

  • Matchplay – Players are also paired against each other in four-player games over a series of rounds. However, instead of accumulating strikes, players earn points based on their finishing position in each match. At the end of the tournament, the player with the most points is declared the winner.

  • Flip Frenzy – These tournaments are sometimes referred to as “Pinball! Pinball! Pinball!” and are known for their fast-paced, frenetic gameplay. Players compete in head-to-head matches on a set number of machines over a set period of time. Each player is assigned to a machine randomly and play as many games as possible in the time allotted. The player with the most wins at the end of the tournament is declared the winner.

  • Best Game – This format is sometimes referred to as “Herb” and it involves a qualifying period where players purchase tickets to play as many games as they want. Each player’s highest score on each game is ranked, and they earn points based on the ranking of their scores on each game. The top players then advance to the tournament finals, which are typically played in groups of four. Points are awarded based on finishing position in each game, and the player with the most points at the end of the finals is declared the winner. This format is commonly used in the main tournament during major events and can lead to large prize pools.

  • Card Based Best Game – Card-based best game tournaments are a variation of the best game tournaments, as the name suggests. In this format, the tournament organizer selects a set of pinball machines, and each player completes a “card” comprising a predetermined number of games. Points are awarded for each game on the card, and players are ranked based on their best card. Unlike regular best game tournaments, where each individual game is scored independently, in card-based best game tournaments, multiple games are collected on a card and scored as a single unit. This format rewards players who perform consistently well across multiple games in a row.

These are just a few examples of the various tournament formats available in the competitive world of pinball. Tournament organizers may also choose to create their own unique formats or variations on existing ones.

Check out for even more tournament formats.

IFPA North American State Championship TN

Pinball Tournament Rules

For those who are new to tournaments, it’s important to keep in mind a two common rules.

  • Avoid playing someone else’s ball. Playing “out of turn” will get you automatically disqualified for the round. So, pay attention to the player order and make sure it’s your turn to play before touching the machine.

  • Extra balls must be plunged. When you earn extra balls during your turn, be sure to plunge it before ending your turn. Just pull the plunger back, take your hands off the machine and let the ball do its thing. Just remember do not touch the flippers. Note: This is not an official IFPA rule, however it is very common.

For beginners, these two rules should be enough to get you started.

If you find yourself in a tricky situation, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Experienced players and tournament directors are always available to assist you, so make use of their expertise.

Here’s a few more that I personally found helpful for those interested in learning more.

  • If a ball becomes stuck during mutiball action, do not continue playing with stuck balls. Immediately attempt to trap or cradle the remaining ball(s). Then have another player call over the tournament director (TD) or you can try to shake loose the stuck ball yourself, if you’re feeling lucky.

  • A “tilt-through” is a tilt condition that affects the other players on the machine. For example, if player 1 were to tilt and then player 2 immediately tilted without them coming into contact with the pinball machine, then would be considered a tilt-thru. Player 1, in this example, would be disqualified for that round.

  • a major catastrophic malfunction is basically anything that makes the pinball machine unplayable for all players. Some examples include broken flippers and software errors that causes a complete game crash. In the event of a catastrophic malfunction, inform your tournament official immediately.

Of course, there are plenty more regulations set forth by the IFPA for tournament play.

If you’re feeling nerdy and want to dive deep into them, you can find all the IFPA tournament rules on their website.  

Pinball Tournament Etiquette

When it comes to pinball etiquette, it’s all about using your common sense.

Don’t distract players while they’re in the zone, and give them some breathing room when they’re at the machine.

And speaking of personal space, it’s always a good idea to practice good hygiene before hitting up a tournament. Trust me, nobody wants to be friends with the smelly guy.

But honestly, just try to act like a normal human being and you’ll do just fine.

Nashville Pinball League Event

Pinball Tournament Strategy

When it comes to tournaments, your strategy might need a little tweak from your usual game plan. So, before you step up to your first pinball machine, remember:

  • Focus on scoring points safely and in repeatable ways. Find those shots you know you can make with your eyes closed and keep hitting them.

  • Master the skill shots because they can be easy sources of big points and can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing.

  • Learn how to start multiball on the most popular machines, or at least the ones at your favorite tournament spot.

Need some game-specific tips?

Check out for game rulesheets and for video tutorials.

If you’re really in a pinch, has your back with quick tips for unfamiliar games during a competition.

  • Practice your shot accuracy, you gotta be able to hit those tough shots when it counts.

  • Ball control is a must and getting the ball into a controlled cradle is key to accurate shots.

  • Work on your flipper skills – drop catch, slap save, ski pass – you gotta know ’em all!

  • Be prepared to play a mix of games from all eras, from classics to DMD’s to modern machines.

Want to learn some more sweet tricks? YouTube is your friend.

Check out this great playlist full of videos about flipper skills and nudging techniques.

How to Prepare for a Pinball Tournament

If you want to dominate your next tournament, you gotta be prepared. Here are some tips to get you ready:

  • Practice, practice, practice! – The more you play, the better you’ll get. Try out different machines and get familiar with different playstyles. It’ll help you handle any machine you face during the tournament. Make sure to practice on similar machines to what you’ll be playing during the tournament so you can get used to their features and rules.

  • Know the rules! – Understanding the rules of each machine is crucial to winning. Take the time to learn the rules of each machine you’ll be playing in the tournament. Watch tutorial videos online, check out past tournament footage or ask experienced players for tips.

  • Stay hydrated and fueled! – Tournaments can last for hours, so bring snacks and water to keep yourself energized throughout the day. Eating a balanced meal before the tournament will also help you stay focused and energized. Avoid sugary snacks and drinks that can lead to a sudden energy crash.

  • Get plenty of rest! – A good night’s sleep before the tournament is essential. Avoid staying up late the night before and stick to your regular sleep schedule. Being well-rested will help you stay focused and make better decisions during gameplay.

  • Get there early! – You want to have time to warm up and practice those flipper skills! You don’t want to be rushing around at the last minute and stressing yourself out.

  • Don’t forget to have fun! – You’re there because you love pinball, so enjoy yourself! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and try to relax. Have a blast, meet new people, and share your passion for pinball!

Follow these tips and you’ll be ready to crush it at your next tournament. Stay focused, keep your cool, and most importantly, have fun!

Tennessee Pinball Competition

What is the IFPA?

I’ve mentioned the IFPA a bunch of times, so what is it?

The International Flipper Pinball Association, commonly referred to as the IFPA, is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and organizing pinball tournaments around the world.

Founded in 1991 by Roger Sharpe, the IFPA has grown to become the leading authority in competitive pinball, with over 60,000 players in its database and thousands of sanctioned events each year.

The IFPA is responsible for maintaining the world pinball player rankings, which are determined based on the results of sanctioned tournaments. The rankings are used to seed players in future tournaments and to determine invitations to the annual IFPA World Pinball Championship.

The IFPA also sets the rules and regulations for play in its sanctioned tournaments, ensuring that everyone competes on a level playing field. These rules cover everything that players play from game settings and machine malfunctions to tiebreakers and playoff formats.

The importance of the IFPA in competitive pinball cannot be overstated, as it provides a unified system for organizing tournaments and tracking player’ scores and performance. By following the guidelines set forth by the IFPA, players can be assured of fair and competitive play in every sanctioned event they attend.

In addition to the IFPA World Pinball Championship, the IFPA partnered with legendary pinball machine manufacturer, Stern Pinball to create the Stern Pro Circuit. This series of high-level events fills the void left behind after the closing of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association or PAPA for short.

The Stern Pro Circuit consists of twenty major tournaments held throughout the year and concludes with the top 32 contestants battling it out the Stern Pro Final Tournament in a last man standing format.

Stern Pinball’s brand ambassadors, the Stern Army, assist the International Flipper Pinball Association in many ways raise to awareness and create more IFPA sanctioned events across the globe.

World Ranked Pinball Player in Stern Army Event

What are the World Pinball Player Rankings?

The World Pinball Player Rankings (WPPR) were established by Josh Sharpe and the International Pinball Flipper Association in order to create the first official rankings system for pinball players around the globe.

Similar to other professional organizations, players earn points based on their performance in events they participate in.

All IFPA-approved events across the globe are eligible to earn World Pinball Player Rankings Points (also called “whoppers”). These WPPR points are awarded based on the main tournament’s strength of field, number of participants, main tournament format, and the player’s final position.

Visit the IFPA website for more information about the WPPR formula.

Why does pinball need a ranking system?

The World Pinball Player Rankings provide the competitive community with a valuable tool to measure themselves against their peers.

Its purpose is to recognize and unite numerous tournaments, events and leagues taking place worldwide, encouraging players to engage in more competition pinball.

Additionally, it was created to increase awareness of competitive pinball beyond the general pinball community.

How do I become an official IFPA member?

It’s easy, by participating in any IFPA sanctioned event and submitting your results to the IFPA through the event director, you will be an officially ranked pinball player. Once ranked, you can then claim your IFPA Profile.

Pinball Tournament Player Focused on Winning Cash, Prizes and Trophy in the Final Round

Now Go Play Pinball!

Well, well, well, look who’s ready to become the ultimate pinball wizard!

I’ve shared all my secrets on how to dominate the pinball tournament scene.

You’re now equipped with the knowledge on how to find the nearest tournament, follow the rules, impress everyone with your impeccable manners, and develop winning strategies. And let’s not forget, now you can even become an IFPA-ranked player!

So, what’s left to do?

You guessed it – go out there and show those pinball machines who’s boss! But remember, always play with style, grace, and a little bit of swag. Who knows, you might even become a professional pinball player and the next IFPA pinball world champion!

So go head on over to the IFPA tournament calendar and find a competitive pinball tournament near you!

If you happen to be in Tennessee, whether you’re living in the state or just visiting, then check out all our Tennessee Pinball Tournaments and Events.