Pinball in Richmond: Co-ops, leagues, collectives, and podcasts full of flipping pinheads

There are always a lot of new developments in Richmond, and some of them are arcade-game related!

Photo by: H. Sánchez

Recently, I wandered into Hardywood Brewery, past the food trucks and through the crowd of people, just like you’d expect on a Saturday. A band was playing and beer was flowing as usual, but the flashing colored lights and giddy customers were definitely different.

I strolled around all of the arcade machines, waded through the gamers, and, finally (and I can only attribute this to all of my childhood Where’s Waldo? training), spotted the person I was looking for. “Are you Clark Fraley?” I asked a slightly confused and taken-aback man. But I pressed on. “Can you tell me about this pinball co-op?”

“A pinball co-what?!” you’re thinking, if you’re thinking the same thing I did when I initially learned about it. Let me, first, just go ahead and tell you this: pinball is a big deal. I, personally, had buried the game long ago with my childhood days at Pro Park. But in fact, just like Voldemort in the first Harry Potter book, pinball is very much still alive.

Did you know we live in the same town as a pinball league? Two in fact. Richmond is home to two pinball leagues, the River City Flippers and the Balls of Steel. And there’s even, yes, a Virginia state championship. These days, pinball fanatics are constantly connecting with each other to keep the pinball community growing.

And that’s where the pinball co-op comes in. According to Fraley, the idea is to give “pinheads” (yes! It’s a term!) a place to play pinball, both socially and competitively.

Their goal is to find a central location for the co-op, and private collectors will be able to donate their machines to reside there (because boy, I bet those things take up a lot of living room space). The general public can have paid access to the games, whether through a membership or entrance fee. The space will serve to host leagues, tournaments, special events, seminars, and plain joyful pinball playing.

In fact, just as Voldemort stayed alive by drinking unicorn blood all those years, pinball has stayed afloat through other locations all around the country.

Cities like Seattle, Burlington, Portland, and Pittsburgh are all considered pinball-focused areas, with extensive arcades and easily accessible games. Many of these cities also have co-ops themselves, which host community nights for the general public, league nights for friendly competitions, and full-on championships. More locally though, our fellow Virginia town, Roanoke, has its own pinball museum (what!). They’ve got old machines, new machines, rare machines, vintage machines, and extra-flashy machines. Plus they give customers the history of the game, the science behind how the machines work, and a whole new appreciation for pinball. It is in fact more than just dazzling lights, funny sounds, and hitting buttons at just the right time!

But hey, let’s get back to Richmond. The Richmond Pinball Collective hosted its first event on January 30th. Hardywood opened up their tasting room to wall-to-wall arcade games. Clark Fraley, co-host of the event and the taken-aback person I tracked down for this story, said that it was a huge success, “We saw constant smiles while people were playing games.” But, honestly, not smiling while playing an arcade game is like not smiling when (SPOILER!) Voldemort is defeated at the end of the seventh book.1

The goal of the arcade night at Hardywood, besides bringing immense joy to Richmonders, was to spread the word of the co-op and provide networking for fellow pinheads (I just can’t stop saying it!). Says Fraley, “We’re hoping to make Richmond a pinball destination.”

But if you missed the event…or if you didn’t miss it and had the time of your life…fear not. Fraley says that they hope to host other pinball events very soon, like during First Fridays Art Walk in the spring, and another arcade night at Hardywood this summer.

And if you’re anxious to get your hands on a pinball machine as soon as possible because you love the game that much, there are definitely still some pre-co-op ways to get a flipper fix.2 You can find pinball machines at arcades in the area, or more adult-y places like bars and breweries–specifically Center of the Universe, Pour House, and Strangeways Brewery.

Then on days when there are no easily accessible pinball machines, you need a break from the game, or your hands have completely shriveled from too much arcade game activity (like the episode of Friends when Chandler’s hand was gnarled from playing Ms. Pac-Man all day), there are pinball podcasts. Two local, and pretty great, podcasts include This Flippin’ Podcast and For Amusement Only. They discuss current events in the pinball world, like new games, updates, and tournaments, and basically nerd out about all things pinball. There’s also a documentary on pinball called Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, which sounds really interesting and potentially heartwarming.

If you’re interested at all in joining the pinheads in their craft, or you’re still intrigued about what the heck a pinball co-op entails, check out the Richmond Pinball Collective. They’ll turn your head into a pin in no time.

  1. I don’t know why this guy has been on my mind so much lately! 
  2. Which is probably a term too, right? 
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Rachel Marsh

Rachel Marsh wishes brunch was more than a weekly occurrence.

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