The Amazing Pinball Race: A Taste of the Stern Pro Circuit

The Amazing Pinball Race: A Taste of the Stern Pro Circuit
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The Amazing Pinball Race: A Taste of the Stern Pro Circuit
Published on
May 21, 2024
Updated on
May 21, 2024
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Competitive pinball provides many different avenues of play, including local leagues, regional tournaments, and much more. For those players who are seriously committed to rising in the ranks, there exists an upper echelon of pinball tournaments that are as cutthroat as they come. Endorsed by the International Flipper Pinball Association (the governing organization of competitive pinball) and Stern Pinball, there is a series of 20 tournaments around the world – dubbed the Stern Pro Circuit – where you'll find some immensely talented pinball players pushing the limits of our beloved game.

In May, I was lucky enough to attend The Amazing Pinball Race, one of the most interesting and exciting tournaments in the Stern Pro Circuit. Located in Ostrander, Ohio (just north of Columbus) at Tilt Amusements (colloquially known as “the Barn”), The Amazing Pinball Race is a weekend ripe with competition, featuring multiple tournaments with various formats, and some seriously challenging competitors. The tantalizing potential of pinball glory saw over 100 players entering the fray, each dead set on claiming the top podium finish. Pinball tournaments are always fascinating and exhilarating, but the Stern Pro Circuit events are a beast of their own.

Day 1: Morning Match Play Warm Up

First and foremost, I must give credit to the wonderful organizers and techs for their incredibly hard work. The weekend's festivities were overseen by organizers Evan Bingham, Brianna Reynolds, Jack Nebraska, and Gregory Kennedy, who worked together flawlessly and kept everything running smoothly. No matter the issue, whether it be a machine malfunction or a ruling during a match, the tournament directors were consistently fair and friendly. In tandem with many volunteers and helpful hands, The Amazing Pinball Race crew ensured that everyone had an enjoyable tournament.

Organizer and TD Evan Bingham

I arrived at the Barn at around noon on Friday for the first tournament of the weekend, a simple 8-round Match Play event that served as a perfect introduction to the location and competitive field. A total of 63 players entered the bout, smartly using the early tournament to warm up for the weekend ahead. This helped immensely for me, as I was able to get hands-on time with several machines that I had yet to try a full day before the main Amazing Pinball Race event started. The bank of games was impressive and varied, including iconic titles like Paragon and Attack from Mars, uncommon tournament picks like NBA Fastbreak and The Lord of the Rings, as well as a slew of modern Stern machines, such as Stranger Things, Avengers: Infinity Quest, The Mandalorian, and more.

For me, the Match Play tournament started as brutal as they come. In my first few rounds, I was matched against several Top 100 World ranked players, who dealt me losses and generally low placements. However, my luck slowly shifted, and with three consecutive wins to close out the qualifying rounds, I squeaked my way into the playoffs. By some miracle, I was the highest-seeded player in my first-round group, granting me the pick of which machines we would play. In an attempt to mix things up, I chose the brand new Jaws, a beloved older title, Grand Prix, and the quirky EM machine, Doodle Bug.

The first round would not be easy, as I was matched against some truly skilled players, including Jason Werdrick (#18 World ranked), Jack Nebraska (#15 in Ohio), and Dalva Ireland (#20 Open Women's Rank in Ohio). Although I played to the best of my ability, a lousy performance on Grand Prix was my downfall, ending my tournament run with a fleeting taste of endgame intensity. By the end of playoffs, four players had fought to the finals, but only one could nab the first victory of the weekend. Ultimately, Nate Grant of South Carolina took the 1st place prize, with Cryss Stephens, Steve Bowden, and Jack Nebraska earning 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively.

Day 1 Continues: The Women's Amazing Pinball Race

As the Match Play tournament wrapped up around 6:30 PM, it was time for The Women's Amazing Pinball Race to begin. This tournament (as well as the main Amazing Pinball Race) was streamed by YpsiPinball on Twitch, providing live coverage throughout the weekend. With the biggest turnout in the event's history, 39 women tested their mettle, competing on 7 different machines. Unlike Match Play tournaments, The Amazing Pinball Race format is essentially a score chase, where each competitor plays a solo match on a specific game in a round, and the player with the lowest score is eliminated. This continues until there is only one player left, meaning the victor would have to succeed across nearly 40 rounds.

The Women's Amazing Pinball Race was a true display of endurance, as the tournament started strong and ran into the wee morning hours. My beautiful partner and aspiring pinball wizard, Sabrina Dugandzic (#10 Open Women's Rank in Ohio), entered the race, trying her hand on games like Johnny Mnemonic, High Roller Casino, Mustang, and more. Much to her liking, having a target score for each game was a refreshing change of pace, reinforcing her confidence on specific machines. After cutting her way through half the pack, she was eventually defeated by a brutal game of Flash Gordon, but the waning hour made it easier to say farewell. As we headed outside under the starry sky, far away from the average light pollution of neighboring cities, we were greeted with a truly unexpected sight. To make the evening all the more special, we and many other players were astonished to see a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Northern Lights hanging ever-so-visible in the Ohio night sky.

Between the constant positivity and encouraging energy, it was clear that everyone who competed in The Women's Amazing Pinball Race gave it their all and did so with equal parts skill and good sportsmanship. When the tournament finally wrapped up around 3:00 AM, the winners had very much earned their finishing placements. After a tense final match on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Therese Edwards nabbed the 1st place finish, while Jessica Reznik, Valencia Kelly, and Alyssa Goodwin achieved 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place.

Women's Amazing Pinball Race Top Finishers

Day 2: Qualifying for The Amazing Pinball Race

Returning to Tilt Amusements the next morning, everyone was notably excited for the main event to kick off. The Amazing Pinball Race is split up into two sections: qualifying and playoffs. If you don't do well in the Match Play qualifying portion, you won't get to partake in the Race proper, making every match count. Since we were playing a Target Match Play variant, players had approximately 15 rounds to play to the best of their ability. As the tournament began in earnest, a sea of 100+ players prepared to play their hearts out. Fortunately, 'the Barn' is an exceptionally chill location with ample space, where you're encouraged to set up a lawn chair outside, kick back with some snacks via the food truck, pet the surprisingly friendly cats, and relax between rounds.

The pool of competitors at The Amazing Pinball Race was stacked, to say the least. In addition to the numerous Top 100 World ranked players in attendance, there were also 5 Ohio state pinball champions in the mix, representing the highest caliber of local competition. I started my qualifying run on a strong foot, but as the rounds continued, my pinball play became more inconsistent. Back-to-back losses on The Mandalorian and Harlem Globetrotters On Tour did nothing to improve my standings, but I was still having a blast. With each passing round, I got to meet new opponents, bonded over shared love (and sometimes hate) for specific machines, and learned invaluable tips on more games than I can count.

Unfortunately, my efforts were not enough to make it into playoff territory, although I came within striking distance. Out of 108 players, I thunked down at 67th place, a far cry from my desired result. This seems to be a somewhat funny recurring event during large-scale pinball tournaments, where I play pretty well at the beginning, only to blow it at the buzzer and self-destruct into the mid-60s. Despite failing to qualify for the Race, my performance across the weekend helped bolster my state IFPA ranking, pushing me into the Top 30 players in Ohio.

Day 3: The Amazing Pinball Race Playoffs

In total, 48 players qualified for The Amazing Pinball Race Playoffs, with the top 32 falling into A Division, while the remaining 16 players occupied B Division. Although both divisions followed the same rules and format, they had unique banks of machines for their respective races. A Division played on the same bank as The Women's Amazing Pinball Race, but with a slight twist. As a rule, the highest-seeded player, Jared August (#15 World ranked), was allowed to replace one game in the bank. Using this to his advantage, he swapped out Flash Gordon for Paragon, throwing several opponents through a loop. Game knowledge is a particularly important aspect of The Amazing Pinball Race format, so anyone with wavering confidence on Paragon was in for a rough ride.

Meanwhile, the B Division players enjoyed their own bank in the back room, which ran the gamut from classic to modern. Attack From Mars, The Addams Family, Skateball, Iron Man, and several other games challenged the B Division to their fullest extent. Out of the two banks, the B Division’s seemed slightly more approachable, although the presence of Flash Gordon added a difficulty spike along the way. As B Division whittled down to the last pair of players, AC/DC was the machine that determined their fate. In the final match, Matt Waters emerged triumphant with 33 million points, nailing a well-deserved victory in the process. Following close behind, Beau Pendleton earned the 2nd place runner-up spot, while DJ Toth and Tyler Hund came in 3rd and 4th.

B Division Winners

Back on the A Division bank, the pressure started to mount, as many top-seeded players were eliminated in rapid succession. After a brutal game of Mustang, Preston Currie was knocked out, leaving only four players remaining. This included Jason Werdrick, Cryss Stephens, Cody Webb, and Jared Schmidt, all with the potential to pull off some hefty scores. Bobby Orr's Power Play was the first machine in the dash to the finish, knocking out Jared Schmidt with a score of 52,000. Johnny Mnemonic was the next obstacle for the remaining trio, resulting in Cody Webb's elimination despite a 448-million-point game. 

For the last match, Stranger Things would serve as the ultimate battlefield, with Jason Werdrick and Cryss Stephens duking it out in an incredibly competitive finale. With a blaze of flipper finesse, Cryss achieved 216 million points, topping Jason's score of 163 million. After a weekend of non-stop competition, Cryss Stephens of Pennsylvania was crowned the 2024 Amazing Pinball Race Champion, a coveted title worthy of enormous bragging rights, as well as a significant sum of cash and a hefty boost in the overall World rankings.

A Division Winners

Overall, The Amazing Pinball Race at Tilt Amusements was a remarkable experience and has simply fueled my desire to attend bigger tournaments with more participants. Although I've visited other Stern Pro Circuit tournaments in the past, The Amazing Pinball Race was a highly fulfilling event at a wildly cool location. Removed from the madness of an average arcade or convention venue, there's a special vibe that accompanies The Amazing Pinball Race, at times feeling more like a laid-back weekend with friends than a high-stress competition. Thanks to the incredible staff of tournament directors, the gracious hosting from Tilt Amusements, and dozens of dedicated players, The Amazing Pinball Race was a perfect representation of the quirky yet infinitely affable pinball community.