Lessons from Another City Champ

(Thanks Manu “mpt3k” for streaming City Champ and letting me use a screen shot for this post!)

Here I am again pondering my pinball life after City Champ. I always have fun but also feel unsatisfied with my play. And this time it has really made me think about my relationship with competitive pinball. I’m writing this to try to figure out how I want to play pinball in competitive environments in the future. I have no clue if anyone will be interested in my musings, but maybe other people out there are trying to find ways to have more fun and success in tournaments.

A bit of background

I don’t travel much for pinball tournaments. I primarily play in tournaments in Oakland and getting across the bay to Free Gold Watch (or any other San Francisco venues) is a rarity. My only large tournaments have been two Golden State Pinball Festivals and four City Champs! This means that City Champ is my only exposure to upper tier match play tournaments.

The history

City Champ 5

I tilted probably half my balls! I like moving machines. Shaking, nudging, sliding, smacking, bumping, banging. Controlling where the ball goes before it gets into danger is a huge part of my game, and I take machines to the edge of where the tilt allows. To me that is just part of pinball.

So my first City Champ was really the lesson of “you don’t get to play like you normally do!”

City Champ 6

I had a hot day! I won my first three matches which put me on the top of the leader board, and also meant I played the rest of the day against some of the best players in the world. Pretty damn cool! I played Zach Sharpe five times that day and my guess is he doesn’t know who I am. I had a shot to finish the day in first place, but as soon as I realized it I stunk up the joint the last two rounds. I still managed to qualify in third! Sadly the next day I played mediocre, and that just doesn’t cut it against the best in the world.

After this amazing weekend I figured out that I needed to try to “get out of my head” and just play pinball!

City Champ 8

I did pretty well through the first seven rounds, but that was long enough for me then to start wondering if I could make the cut. So of course I stunk up the joint and got two whole points in the last five rounds!

Obviously I didn’t figure out how to stay out of my head!

City Champ 9

This last City Champ was a totally different experience. I went into the tournament caring how I did. I really wanted to make the cut for the finals. Since City Champ is one of the few big tournaments I play, it is one of my only big changes to get World Pinball Player Rankings (WPPR) points. And after two years of COVID isolation, it would be nice to have my ranking be more representative of my quality of play.

So this time around I did what you are supposed to do in competitive pinball. I watched how other people played games to try to figure out how the tilts were set and how the games were playing. I thought about strategy in order to try to catch up to or distance myself from opponents. The only thing I didn’t do was play well!

We played 12 rounds in qualifying. In those twelve games I had a total of four good balls!
They were my last ball on Rack Em Up and all three balls on Led Zeppelin, and those two machines were the only first places that I got all day. Other than those four balls, I played ok on some balls and crappy on most. I only made the cut for finals because of six second places where my poor or mediocre play synched up with other people also having bad games.

In the first round of finals I was horrible. Absolutely horrible. I barely flipped on Royal Flush and took last on Jurassic Park (I will come back to this game later), and with no points in the first two games my only chance to advance was to win out on the last two games. Sadly I didn’t even come close so I finished in 22nd place. Pretty damn good and disappointing at the same time!

Looking back…

So my day started on Avengers Infinity Quest (AIQ), a game that I absolutely love. I have played AIQ for hours and hours and hours. Unfortunately in tournaments I often play poorly on games that I know really well. I think it is a combination of the expectation of being able to do well and too many decisions about how to play at any given moment. I played pretty horrible and ended with a very low score, but strangely two other people had even worse luck. A good result in spite of poor play.

And that was kind of the way it went for the next three rounds. A game that I like and know well with poor to mediocre play. But others in my groups having worse luck. In each of the rounds there was at least one player that I knew was a better tournament player than I am. I think that kept my head in tournament mode, looking for ways to do really well, which sadly led to a lack of flow and fun.

So I was doing well in the tournament but felt like I was playing poorly. It then became a desire to just have a good game. Even just one good ball. And that led to overthinking and tensing up. Gripping too hard. I muddled my way through another three rounds until I finally had a good game in an unexpected way!

The eighth round was my first time even seeing a Led Zeppelin! I got two tips from a friend (the left ramp would eventually starts a multiball and that the left scoop starts a mode that can lead to a multiball) but that was it. Since Led Zeppelin had been out for a while, I figured everyone else would know how to play and resigned myself to get third or fourth. So I just played to experience the game. And I absolutely blew up my first ball! I had a few multiballs and somehow got the weird spinner to elevate in the middle of the machine. I had a huge lead after the first ball, so I just kept having fun trying to figure out how to play the game. It was the only complete game that I played the whole day!

My last good ball was on Rack Em Up. The game was a blast because it had a powerball in it! I love playing with powerballs. They are light ceramic balls made for Twilight Zone, and they play zippy and fast. At the same time their light weight makes for really smooth drop catches that stop dead on the flipper, leading to a lot of fun controlled smooth flowing play. I wasn’t familiar with the rules but managed to learn the basics from the instruction card. By the time we were on our last ball, I managed to get into the flow and had a really long ball that landed me in first!

And learning lessons…

With Led Zeppelin and Rack Em Up, I stopped worrying about all the little details of how you are supposed to play pinball and just had fun playing. I didn’t care what other people were doing or where their scores were. I managed to stay in the moment and found a flow to my game. Instead of trying to play like I am supposed to, just play a game the way I like to. And if someone beats me while I am playing my game, cheer and congratulate them!

A great example of finally playing my game was the finals round game of Jurassic Park. I went into ball three in fourth place, but two of my opponents also had low scores. I had Chaos multiball ready, and the smart play would be to just try to start the multiball in order to catch at least one person. Instead I played to stack a Control Room mode with Chaos multiball because that is how I like to play. I missed the mode start shot five times and drained! I took last. But I felt good about my decision because I was playing the game how I like to play. I took a zero for the game but left with a smile on my face.

I know I am going to have a hard time getting out of my head and getting into the flow during (big) tournaments. But this City Champ has taught me a few things to try.

  1. Have fun watching other people play – I enjoy watching people play great pinball. It is fun to see people blow up a machine or make an incredible save. Instead of watching to learn how a machine is playing, watch to enjoy the pinball. I might notice how tight a tilt is set or if a dead bounce works but it can’t be the point of watching. When strategy becomes the point of watching others play, it takes me outside my game and leads me away from being able to play well.
  2. Play my own game – There are a number of ways that I play differently than most tournament players. I don’t prioritize safe shots. I play quickly and with a lot of flow. I try to progress through the whole game instead of trying to maximize points. For most games I will have a strategy before the first flip. I just need to stick with that game plan because anything else leads to thoughts not flow.
  3. Go first when possible – Most tournament players want to go as late as possible in play order. This lets them know what scores they have to beat on the last ball so they can choose an appropriate strategy to pass as many people as possible. Going first gives me less opportunity to overthink my first ball and there is never a reason to change how I want to play the game. If someone passes me at least get to watch some great pinball!

It will be interesting to see if I can use these lessons to stay out of my head. Prior City Champs have already shown that I need to not think too much, but maybe this one will teach me some ways to actually succeed.

Thank you City Champ for the lessons! See you next year!

About David Lee

I play in the East Bay, mostly in Alameda, Oakland and Emeryville. Oakland Pinball Warriors is my main monthly tournament, and only occasionally make it to San Francisco for tournaments. My IFPA ranking bounces around 500, depending on how many tournaments I get to. I am DavidLee on Pindigo and LEE on scoreboards

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