Gary Stern has been making pinball machines at Stern Pinball for decades, as he had been taught the trade of making these machines by his father. Stern has been building its machines since 1986, and now it is parlaying that fame into esports tournaments and a “lifestyle brand.” I’ve been meeting him regularly at CES tech shows in Las Vegas every year, and he always has something new to show.
Stern says that demand for pinball has never been better, as the aging baby boomers are buying the $5,000 to $8,200 machines out of a sense of nostalgia. They long for the good old days, with simpler games and simpler machines with a distinct mechanical feel. Modern arcades are popping up all over, and those are bringing new people into the silver ball experience.
This week, Chicago-based Stern Pinball announced it will hold the 2018/2019 Stern Pro Circuit Championship at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago, Illinois, on Saturday, March 9, 2019. The event will be staged along with eBay, the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), and the Replay Foundation. 40 of the highest-ranked pinball players in the world will compete for the Stern Pro Circuit Championship Belt. The event will be hosted by Brian “Q” Quinn from Impractical Jokers and will feature a live performance by Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies. In the original battle royale, the last person standing will be crowned the champ.
Pinball has been Stern’s life. His father owned Williams, the pioneering pinball company. And Stern started Stern Pinball in 1986. He sold his firm to Sega in 1994 and then bought it back in 1999. The circuit helps draw attention to the business and it rewards the most fanatical players. Almost half the machines are exported overseas.
Back in January at CES 2019, I played some pinball with Gary. I did pretty well, at least from my point of view, at The Munsters pinball game, which was based on one of the TV shows I enjoyed as a kid. It had a baby pinball machine inside of it where you could play if you hit the right spots in the machine. I also got a good look at the Beatles game, which included video from the appearance of the Fabulous Four on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
In past years, Stern Pinball has gone with the flow, making machines based on hot properties like Guardians of the Galaxy or Star Wars. I like chatting with Stern because, after all these years, he’s still a big kid.