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PNW: a pinball paradise (mostly), how a Tri-Cities man is solving the ‘inland drought’

A man in a black shirt that says "legalize death saves" is standing in front of a multicolored Deadpool pinball machine.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Brent Bowen started playing pinball as a kid in the Tri-Cities. Now, he owns seven pinball machines and hopes to start a league in the Tri-Cities, where there's a dearth of pinball players compared to the rest of the Northwest.

Ever since Brent Bowen was a young boy, about eight or nine, he played the silver ball.

It all started at a local hotspot in Kennewick, Washington called Hubby’s Pizza.

“There was this guy, a teenager at the time. There was something different about this guy. I stood there and watched him play pinball,” Bowen said.

At the time, Bowen was no stranger to arcades – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and Konima were his go-to games. But, this was different.

“That’s when I saw him catching the ball and aiming for the ball. I was like, ‘You can do that?!’ It blew my mind,” he said.

So, this teenager did what Bowen would continue paying forward through adulthood. He gave Bowen a turn.

“That was it. I was hooked,” Bowen said. “I didn’t even eat my pizza. I went back to my dad, ‘Give me quarters.’ That was it. That was the day.”

From Seattle to Portland, many people consider the Pacific Northwest a pinball paradise. Now, Bowen is trying to bring the love he felt that day to southeastern Washington. It’s been a journey.

A pinball desert
After college, Bowen moved to L.A. and eventually signed on as an animator for “The Simpsons.” In 2004, he bought his first pinball machine: 007 GoldenEye.

Fast forward through a wife, kids and the pandemic, and the couple decided to move back to the Tri-Cities, where they also discovered a pinball drought east of the Cascades.

But, not in their house.

“So, as you can see,” Bowen said, rounding a corner in his West Richland home,.“This is my master bedroom.”

pinball bedroom.mp4

It is filled with seven pinball machines; more than any single pinball arcade in the area.

“My wife and I sacrificed our master bedroom for this hobby,” he laughed.

He said the growing collection became addictive.

“If you want two, you end up having six,” Bowen said.

With themes spanning from Deadpool – his favorite game ever – to the Foo Fighters – with lots of music to choose from – to Godzilla – what Bowen said is the “most popular game out there.”

“The reason I love this game is because not every ball is the same. Every time you start a game, it’s brand new. It’s just you versus gravity. It’s you and the ball – and that’s it,” he said.

It’s like you *are the ball, he said. You’re in control.

But, in the mid-2000s, Bowen said, pinball nearly spun out.

“It was just the lack of knowledge that people knew about pinball, a newer generation. Playstations came out. The arcades kind of died,” he said.

Then, in 2020, with people looking for good at-home entertainment, the price of games soared.

“We called it ‘pinflation,’” Bowen said. “After that 2020 market, and those private home collectors, they were just gobbling up everything.”

Going strong in Seattle, Portland
One of the highest priced games – so far – is available for the public to play at Ice Box Arcade in Seattle. A roughly $20,000 60th anniversary Limited Edition James Bond 007 machine. It’s not quite in Bowen’s budget.

“I’d have to sell a kidney,” he joked.

He said he once spent six years collecting aluminum cans and selling stuff out of his garage to buy a $6,000 Deadpool Pro Edition machine. Now, he’s decided he wants others in the area to catch his love of the game. Also, he hopes they avoid the dreaded 30-second pitfall that is the bane of most inexperienced players.

Strong leagues already gather in Portland and Seattle, he said. There is no shortage of arcades. Take Next Level Pinball Museum in Hillsboro, Oregon, where Connor Stowe, marketing director, runs tournaments every Friday night.

Washington and Oregon have the highest per capita of pinball machines in the U.S., he said.

pinball machines line an aisle in an arcade the size of a warehouse. The room is lit in a bright blue light.
Connor Stowe
Next Level Pinball Museum
Pinball machines line the aisles of Next Level Pinball Museum in Hillsboro, Ore.

“Until you’re in it, I don’t think you realize how extensive a community it can be,” Stowe said. “People think of it as niche but once you’re in it, you open your eyes to how many places have pinball or leagues or tournaments and how deep the community goes.”

What he said he loves about that, is that pinball is open to anyone and everyone.

“It has different entry and access points to it,” he said. “And with that, too, you’re seeing a wide diversity of men and women and ages. You don’t have to be six-foot tall or weigh 200 pounds or have huge muscles. Anyone can play and succeed at the same level.”

Stowe said he found that out when he first moved to New York City, where he used a Groupon to take a spin. He joined a league soon after, hoping to make friends. He played in competitive tournaments around the country and around the world – and eventually moved to the Portland area to turn his hobby into a career.

“A lot of the friends that I made, and the community that I made, was based on the folks that I met at that pinball league,” he said.

Tournaments happen all the time in the Portland area – and around the world, Stowe said. You can just show up if you're bored on a particular night and it’s OK if you don’t have a lot of experience. Don’t be nervous to join a league or tournament, he said.

“Go in with the expectation of meeting some folks and trying something new. Don’t go in with the expectation that you’re going to be this undiscovered champion,” he said. “People are wildly nice, wildly happy to answer questions and talk about the nerdy hobby that they love.”

Inland pinball communities
That nerdy hobby also has a growing scene in Spokane, said Jeff Simon of Spokane Pinball Company, which sells, rents and repairs pinball machines. It’s rough, Simon said, because pinball doesn’t pay out as much as jukeboxes or pool tables – and the pinball machines require a lot of maintenance. Still, he said Spokane leagues are growing.

A man in a pinball T-shirt and a blazer stands in front of an Attack from Mars pinball machine.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
Jeff Simon owns Spokane Pinball Company, which sells, rents and repairs pinball machines.

“You have to have your entire community engaging in it. So if you don't have a core group of people that are actively engaging in it, and trying to build it's hard,” Simon said.

In the Tri-Cities, Bowen and his wife, Lori, are planning to start pinball camps for kids, women and non-binary people – and eventually create pinball leagues.

Simon has offered to transport newly released pinball machines to the Caterpillar Cafe in Richland, Wash., for people to play during the Bowen’s events this spring. In a true show of dedication, Simon drives a van covered in pinball graphics — down to a personalized pinball license plate.

All in the name of building a community and helping people learn. He said to become a pinball wizard, there are a few things you need to learn.

Teaching techniques
“There’s a lot of techniques in pinball that people don’t even know. People just think: flip and keep the ball alive but that’s not the case. There’s a lot going on,” Bowen said.

Bowen is a patient teacher – at least for this uncoordinated reporter.

“Well, I can teach you,” he said to jokes about a lack of skill.

His biggest nuggets of advice, which he often doles out on his Twitch stream – filmed after his kids are asleep: watch the flashing lights.

“Know what you’re shooting at,” he said. “The biggest key in pinball is: if it’s flashing really bright and fast, that’s what wants your most attention.”

He showed off slap saves, live caches– “They take some practice,” he said – backhangs, and the advanced, controversial death save – bouncing the ball back into play just as it drains down the outlane.

Nudging the machine isn’t just for death saves, he said.

“Nudging is a big part of the game. If you’re not shaking this thing, you’re not playing,” Bowen said. “The game will tell you if you’re doing it too much.”

For Bowen, playing pinball is almost like meditation.

“At the end of the day, I can come home, turn this on and it just turns my brain off,” he said. “And I’m just the ball. I’m not thinking about anything else anymore and for that brief minute, I’m just happy.”

Pinball nerds are a really welcoming community, he said, so come on out.

“Let’s play,” Bowen said.

For more information on future Tri-Cities pinball events, email Brent Bowen at

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.