The road to becoming world pinball champion

This post will be a bit different from most of the others I have made here. I’ve spent the last eight years posting mainly about various arcade visits, tournaments, and league nights. This post, however, is strictly for the players and fans who don’t understand the process of getting to a world championship. This is primarily from my perspective, as a Texas player, except where otherwise noted.

There are actually two different world championships. One is the IFPA Open, held each year as part of INDISC in California. (INDISC originally stood for It Never Drains In Sunny California, but today is no longer officially an acronym as far as I can tell.) The only requirement to play in the IFPA Open is to make the trip and buy the qualifying entries. Those who score high enough make the playoffs, and the winner of those playoffs becomes the IFPA Open champion for that year.

The other is the original IFPA World Championship, which alternates between North America and Europe each year. The 2024 championship, which players qualified for last year (2023), will be in the US, the 2025 championship will be in Europe, and then the 2026 championship will be somewhere in North America again. There are two ways to qualify for the (original) IFPA World Championship. One way is via the open world ranking, with two slots guaranteed to each eligible country, then the highest ranked players remaining. The players qualifying that way will fill 77 of the 80 slots. The other way is via the three remaining slots, which go to the winner of the North American Pinball Championship, the European Pinball Championship, and the Women’s World Pinball Championship. Being a male in North America with exclusively domestic travel plans for the immediate future, it is the first of these that are most relevant to me.

The only way into the North American Pinball Championship is to win a State, Provincial, or District (of Columbia) Championship. (The European one is different as it’s done primarily from an at-large field of 52 qualifiers from tournaments in Europe, with the 12 other slots going to the highest country-level finishers who haven’t already qualified via the at-large field, more like a miniature version of the World Championship.)

For me, sitting here in Texas, I would most likely have to qualify for and win the Texas State Championship. I say “most likely” as it is possible in theory for me to travel to another state (or province or DC), qualify for that championship, and win it, and make it into the North American tournament that way. There is nothing in the IFPA rules prohibiting one from going to a qualifier outside the state one lives in. Given past events, however, it would feel extremely awkward to qualify for and win, say, the Oklahoma championship or the Louisiana championship and advance that way. If it’s my only option, sure, that’s what I’ll do, and I’ll just deal with the awkwardness.

So what does it typically take to qualify for an IFPA state-level championship? The top qualifier in Texas did this:

I’ll explain what each tournament was, since the names are obscured.

1, 3, 5, 10, 14, 19 are monthly 4X (four strikes) tournaments. 2 is a major annual tournament. 4 and 17 are major max matchplay tournaments. 9 is an annual pin-golf tournament. 6,15 are major quarterly tournaments. 7 is part of a week-long series of tournaments leading up to a major classic arcade/pinball show. 8 and 13 are monthly 3X tournaments. 11 appears to be a one-off 4X tournament held on someone’s private home collection. 12 and 18 are weekly 3X tournaments held at a well-known local arcade. 16 is another one-off group matchplay tournament held at someone’s private collection (different host than 11). 20 is yet another one-off tournament at yet another private home collection (different from 16 or 11), of which I can find out absolutely nothing as the Facebook event has either been deleted or was marked private.

Number of players in each tournament, in order: 48, 56, 34, 48, 64, 68, 35, 86, 50, 31, 31, 28, 35, 48, 32, 49, 30, 51, 44. Finishing rank for this player in each tournament, in order: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2.

That’s a total of 601.70 ranking points, with an average of 30.09 points per tournament in that top 20.

The player just above the cutline (24th) did this:

This player is based in a different area than the top qualifier, so most of these are different tournaments. I’ll try to explain these as well, using roughly the same format. I’m not finding a lot of information on these, and I’m not as familiar with this area’s typical tournaments.

1 is a classics only holiday tournament (the tournament name ends with “Christmas”). 2 is a 4X tournament. 3 is a target matchplay tournament. 4,13,18 are one-off/special occasion tournaments, but I can’t find out much more information on them. 5,20 are two instances of the same local monthly tournament. 6 is a major annual tournament outside this player’s area (approximately a 3-4 hour drive). 7 is a weekly tournament in the same area as 6. 8,9,10,16 are in the same area as 7, with 9 and 10 being part of a major quarterly weekend series of tournaments, and 8 being a monthly 4X tournament the following weekend. 12 is another tournament in the same series as 8. 14 is a 4X tournament, even though it is named the same as 2. 15 is part of a quarterly tournament series (similar to 9 and 10). 17 is an annual pin-golf tournament. 19, I have uncensored just as a point of reference: the Texas Pinball Festival Classics tournament (not the one I played in, which is Wizards, but the side tournament in the same room).

Some of these overlap between the two players. With the top qualifier’s number first: 1 and 8 are the same tournament; 3 and 12; 6 and 15; 9 and 17.

Number of players in each tournament, in order: 47, 10, 13, 42, 20, 111, 48, 48, 56, 30, 20, 34, 45, 10, 64, 43. Finishing rank for this player in each tournament, in order: 1, 1, 2, 4, 3, 43, 12 (3-way tie), 2, 12, 4 (2-way tie), 1, 3, 7 (3-way tie), 1, 26, 9, 8, 2, 76, 6 (4-way tie).

Now I’ll post one completely uncensored, as he’s not a Texas player, but I have mentioned him before here. Escher Lefkoff is currently the #2 ranked player in the world (he was #1 for a while), and played in all three TPF tournaments (Texas Pinball League, Classics, and Wizards) this past year. Those were the only Texas tournaments he played:

Note that Escher lives in Colorado. However, these three tournaments put together were almost enough points to qualify in Texas; Escher wound up in 26th, two places below the cutline, a mere 4.96 ranking points short.

(TPF Wizards had 158 players, Classics had 208, and the TPL tournament had 60.)

And Escher didn’t even win two of these tournaments. He did win TPF Classics, but came in tied for second in the Texas Pinball League and tied for seventh in TPF Wizards. One place higher in Wizards would have put him in the top 24 for Texas.

While the year-end standings put Escher just below the cutline for Colorado (which I’m not going to dissect the same way here), there are at least two out-of-state players in the top 24 (one from Oregon, one from Kentucky) who may not fancy a return trip to Colorado to play in that state’s championship. Not all of the players who make the top 24 are always able to make it, so then the 25th, 26th, etc ranked players are invited in order. This is the same in Texas as well, so it’s not inconceivable for two Texas players to drop out and give Escher a chance to play in the Texas championship.

Anyway, so that’s what it takes to qualify for a state championship (the first step in making it to the world championships by way of the state-North America-world route): plenty of high finishes in tournaments with high player counts, with the top 20 tournaments played in the state in the year counting towards state championship qualifying. Not easy by far, but I have proven in the past that I can make it to the top. Just qualifying for a state championship is only the beginning, the first of four parts of the road to world champion via that route. Winning the state championship is the second part, then winning the North America championship is the third part.

I may take a more in-depth look at INDISC and the IFPA North America and World Championships, as well as what it takes to actually win an IFPA state championship, in later posts.

[Posted as part of Matt Mullenweg’s Birthday Gift wishes.]