‘More Camaraderie Than Competition,’ It’s Game On For Colorado’s Pinball Women

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4min 30sec
Photo: Women Of Pinball 1 | Helena Walter Higgins - MSakas
Helena Walter Higgins, winner of the 2017 Women's World Pinball Championship, stands in front of a row of pinball machines in her living room in Thornton, Colo.

For nearly 10 years, Helena Walter Higgins held the spot for the world’s best woman pinball player — but now she’s number two, to a player in California named Robin Lassonde.

"But I'm happy about it!” Walter Higgins says. “They're really grinding away, learning technique and going to tournaments.”

She’s surprised she kept the top ranked spot for so long. To her, the upset is a sign that more women are getting in the game. When she started, it was just her and another pinballer, but now “it's like some kind of boom happening!”

Walter Higgins love for pinball has taken her to tournaments around the world, where she met her other love — a pinball player from Colorado. She moved from Sweden to Thornton in 2016, after their vows were exchanged in the rows of arcade machines at The 1up-LoDo in Denver. She’s happy to be here, with him, and not in some other “little 'ol town without pinball or something.”

And Colorado has pinball — lots of it. There are major arcades in Denver, Lyons, Fort Collins and Lakewood. There’s a yearly festival and expo, the Rocky Mountain Showdown. There are other world-ranked players.

In Sweden, pinball is considered a game of chance, like a slot machine or poker. Since it’s treated like gambling, it’s hard to find pinball in bars. It’s mostly in basements and other private spaces. The regulations keep the game’s exposure low in Sweden. In Colorado, you can find pinball even if you’re not looking for it.

Photo: Women Of Pinball 2 | Helena Walter Higgins Trophy - MSakas
Helena Walter Higgins plays pinball in her living room with her 2017 Women's World Pinball Championship trophy close by.

“So many places to play, and much younger players who are loving pinball,” Walter Higgins says. “It feels good for the future, that it'll stick around. Like it's a resurgence of pinball.”

That growth might be from the increasing number of women’s-only leagues and clubs, like the Denver chapter of Belles and Chimes. Haley Gabbard noticed there were groups of women who played, but there wasn’t an organized network to connect them. So she started one.

"Just to have a structure where we could support each other, hang out with each other and just get to know each other better,” Gabbard says. “And also improve our skills without being in a competitive setting, which has kind of hindered our growth."

Belles and Chimes is helping grow the pinball community, introducing neophytes like Megan Sabella to the game. Sabella is to the point now where she’s coming out three to four times a week.

“I leave the office and like go straight to the arcade," Sabella says.

Photo: Women Of Pinball 3 | 1up Pinball Denver - MSakas
A woman plays a game of pinball at The 1up arcade bar on Colfax in Denver.

For her, the community of women players has been a supportive introduction to pinball.

“It wasn't like, 'Hey I'm going to beat your butt on this game,’” Sabella says, “More so, 'Hey here's how you do the skill shot, or here's a trick with the upper flipper, this is the ramp you're going for.’”

The women of pinball are on the business side too. Kim Jones opened Pinball Jones, a basement arcade bar in Old Town Fort Collins, in 2011. A second location just opened closer to the Colorado State University Campus. Her business partner, Karen Ellis, started a women’s-only league. Eight women showed up the first night, which Ellis considers a success, since a much lower number compete in the arcade’s monthly tournament.

"Because it's woman together, it's a little bit more camaraderie than competition,” she says. “We want to win of course, but we really want to learn more about the games, is more the point.”

Ellis has played pinball almost her entire life, but didn’t start competing until she got involved in Pinball Jones five years ago. The arcade gave her a place to practice, and people to play with.

Photo: Women Of Pinball 4 | Kim Jones Pinball Jones FoCo - MSakas
"I knew I couldn't be the only person that was interested in pinball," said Kim Jones, the founder of Pinball Jones in Fort Collins, Colo. "And people would come down the stairs and they would be like, 'oh my gosh I can't believe this is here!'"

Walter Higgins says she’s glad women are finding a way into the game, but she hopes that one day, women’s-only tournaments and leagues aren’t needed anymore. She won the 2017 Women’s World Pinball Championship held in Texas. But as somewhat of a boycott, she didn’t play the tournament’s first year back in 2016.

“Because I didn't really realize some things,” Walter Higgins says. “I was like, ‘Why do we need a separate division? This like, tells the public or the media that we need a separate division for women, we don't need that.’"

The thing she now realizes was not all women feel welcome in pinball. And that the respect she has from other plays took time and hard work.

"In the beginning, people kind of count you out, or underestimate you.” Walter Higgins says. “That kind of worked out good for me, they didn't know really who I was, and then I just beat them. And some guys had a hard time dealing with that.”

She loves the game too much to let anyone keep her from it, so she’ll keep playing, “and if people are rude to me or any other girl, I'm going to talk back to them. Because it's not OK. It should be a welcoming atmosphere for everybody."