I went to a competitive tournament in a basement punk and pierogi bar.
In a dimly lit basement in downtown Ottawa lies House of TARG. The place is pretty hard to miss, thanks to the bright yellow poutine truck that's always parked next to it, so anyone in search of this bar's specialties—pierogies and pinball—will have an easy enough time. A free pinball tournament got me in the door on Wednesday night, where I saw 32 contestants battling head-to-head in a double elimination bracket, which was being livestreamed on Twitch.
It was an International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) sanctioned event, where participants could get points on the world circuit. A lot of people came to win, but I wasn't the only one there experiencing competitive pinball for the first time. Entrants ranged from avid players who had made the trip from Montreal, two hours away, to first-time competitors.
"I got into it with some friends. I don't know what it is, maybe it's the lights or something, but it gets pretty exciting," said Matt Scissons, an Ottawa local who ended up playing his first competitive match live that night on stream. As for the competition being broadcast on Twitch, "I knew pinball was streamed but I didn't think they'd have that here in Ottawa," he said. "It kind of caught me off guard," but ultimately he didn't find it too distracting.
It should be no surprise that competitive pinball is a thing. There is a rapt community of enthusiasts who play in tournaments run by the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) on a circuit that culminates in a world championship each year. However, the live broadcast of pinball is a recent addition to the scene.
"It's really helpful for growing pinball," said the organizer of the night's event, Monty, who preferred to not have his real name published. "Pinball almost died at a point, but it's really had a resurgence over the last couple of years. I think streaming and YouTube have had a big part in all of that."
Twitch isn't just about video games—it hasn't been for a while. Ever since the launch of Twitch Creative, the site has been host to talk shows, people who spit freestyle raps based on cues from the chat, re-runs of cult classic The Joy of Painting, and pinball, amongst other things.
I first learned of the world of competitive pinball when a coworker at the restaurant where I work weekends, who I'd known to be an avid streamer of Borderlands and Destiny, told me he was selling his PS4 and buying a pinball machine to stream that instead. After checking out his setup, I hopped into some some top pinball streams to see what it was about.
One of the streams I watched was twitch.tv/dead_flip, a channel with nearly 9,000 followers. The channel is run by Jack 'Dead Flip' Danger, a pinhead who uses a laptop, three or four webcams, mic stands, a microphone, external lights, and a mobile hotspot to stream from his Chicago studio, or on location at various bars and tournaments. His love of pinball started after playing a Judge Dredd pinball machine, and he's been heavily into it for the last five years.
"Pinball, unlike video games, is tactile, chaotic, and unpredictable"
"When I first got into pinball, the only way to learn was to watch other players. There were some great tutorials on YouTube about machines and rules, but not so much about flipper skills and ball control," said Danger when I contacted him for an interview.
Danger competes at a high level. He attended Pinburgh 2016, a world championship event in Pittsburgh this past July. He came came 20th out of 700 in that tournament, which was broadcast by PAPA's Twitch channel. The channel attracts a lot of viewers on Twitch, but is only active for championship streams. It's up to streamers like Dead Flip to keep the masses entertained when there isn't a tournament happening.
"I'd be a liar if I didn't say I get a kick out of being the 'pinball guy' on Twitch," said Danger. "I'm now invited out to pinball manufacturers to show off machines in their beta stage, and to host launch parties for new games that come out. Pinball was not an official channel on Twitch until [late] 2015, but after working with them to create its identity, it's now a searchable section of the site."
Pinball has been at the forefront of non-video game channels on Twitch in earning accolades. The first streamer to be inducted into the Twitch Hall of Fame, at TwitchCon in September 2015, was LethalFrag. He streams a lot of different video game content as well as in-depth pinball coverage, which includes playing, analyzing, customizing and repainting pinball tables. His followers number over 230,000. It's helped bring pinball to a wider audience.
All you need to stream on Twitch are a couple of webcams and some easily downloadable free broadcast software. That accessibility has helped grow the community even more.
"Before all this streaming stuff, you'd have to go to a bar or arcade to learn a game and watch some folks play to see how to improve. Now we're able to show thousands of people these skills, show them machines they may have never seen, take them to tournaments they may never get to attend," said Danger.
That night at Ottawa's House of TARG, which was punctuated by lively tournament matchups and pierogi orders being called out over the loudspeaker, I found a lively, growing community.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jack Danger's first name as "Jake." It's been fixed.