Chicago brothers Zach and Josh Sharpe will abscond to Frankfurt, Germany, at the end of May to help preside over the World Pinball Championship. They're the president and vice-president, respectively, of the International Flipper Pinball Association, the organization putting on a tournament for the best 64 pinballers in the world--a pool of players that also includes the Sharpe brothers, two of the world's top-15-ranked players.
"I feel like Sy Sperling, the Hair Club for Men guy who also uses the product," Josh, 33, said with a laugh. "It's a labor of love, with us being players."
The championships span three days from May 31 to June 2 at Freddy's Pinball Paradise, where players from 19 different countries will dance with the zigs and zags of a 2.6-ounce silver ball while spectators breath over their shoulders, watching every flip.
The tournament is modeled after March Madness, Josh said, with a pseudo-pool play round where groups of four competitors play three different machines, with game themes ranging from Metallica to The Avengers to Lord of the Rings. That round cuts competitors down to 32 before the tourney becomes a single-elimination, head-to-head test to advance.
That's when the intensity is amped, and the tournament really starts to take on its tenuous all-or-nothingness. They're playing for a new Stern Pinball table of their choice, but mostly for the right to be the best in the world.
"Playing at the pinnacle of competition in anything is physically and emotionally exhausting-- one little slip-up and you can miss the top 32," Josh said. "It's the same intensity as a March Madness game. You get caught in one of those 5-12 (seed) games, and you can feel it in the arena. A team is pressing, and you know."
The pressure isn't shared among a team, though, as Zach, 31, pointed out: both thrills and anguish are isolated to the person behind the flippers.
"It's just like watching Sergio (Garcia) hit two in the water on 17, and you go from being in the lead to dropping all the way to 10th, because, I don't want to be vulgar, but, you know, he poops the bed," he said. "It's the same wild swings. One moment you're about to win or advance, and one bad ball, and you're not."
The Sharpe brothers have felt this pressure and will again this year. Zach is ranked third in the world, Josh is ranked 15th, and both have spent time in the top 10.
During the last year, Zach has done more competing than Josh, who has to contend with an 18-month-old that only allows for practice when the table's lights and noises calm him down. The pair agrees that the best practice is the pressure performances at tournaments and events like these, of which there are now 450 sanctioned by the IFPA worldwide, a huge resurgence for a table-top game during a time when most games come across a TV screen.
"That's what's so great about pinball," Josh said. "You can't simulate something like that connected to the web. It's like playing golf. Can't shoot a 90 at my local course, and you shoot an 88 in California then say you beat me. It's like, 'You didn't beat me.' The people I play are great friends because I have to be in person. It makes it a real personal game."
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