The world’s top pinball player is a 19-year-old from Longmont

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Escher Lefkoff, 19, of Longmont, is the new Open World Champion pinball player. He practices on a collection of machines in a converted barn created by his dad, Adam Lefkoff, who is also a collector and competitive pinball player. Feb. 1, 2023.

The journey of the silver ball isn’t just an arcade game for 19-year-old Escher Lefkoff.  

It’s a metaphor for life.

Every game has a beginning, a launch. It’s followed by unexpected twists and turns. Then, finally, every round will end. Every ball will drain. 

“We are all going to die,” Lefkoff said. “That is just a fact of life. So it really depends on what you do with the ball — with your opportunities.”

Lefkoff has taken that carpe diem attitude to the next level as of late. He became the International Flipper Pinball Association’s number-one ranked player in the world after winning a series of national tournaments in Wisconsin last August. 

He’s been defending that title ever since. And the 100-year-old underground game (or sport, depending on who you ask) has seen a resurgence among young players. Meaning Lefkoff now has a singular mission: besting any and all that come for his crown.

“There’s so many good players now, especially in Colorado,” Lefkoff said. “So you have no other choice but to quit or get good, and the people that choose to get good get really good.” 

Pinball’s community and physicality keep Lefkoff hooked. It sets it apart from other games in an increasingly digital world of video streaming and social media. 

“That's the main reason I play it. It's not digital. There is an actual steel ball rolling around that I have control over,” he said. “I play video games and online games, but nothing really is the same. I just love it.” 

Arcades such as 1-up in Denver and Pinball Jones in Fort Collins regularly host tournaments where Escher and other world-class players based along the Front Range face off. They see the game as a way of life — similar to Lefkoff and his father, Adam, who inspired him to start playing. 

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Escher Lefkoff practices Feb. 1, 2023.

A pinball family dynasty

It all began as a way for Lefkoff to spend time with his dad, Adam. His family has a pinball machine- and trophy-filled barn in Longmont, and Adam is also an accomplished competitive player and local league organizer. 

Starting at age 3, Escher tagged along with Adam to gatherings at a local arcade called Lyons Classic Pinball. As a toddler, Escher stood on a small wooden stool between his dad and the machine so he could watch him play. By 4, he began to compete in junior league championships.

When he saw his dad use a new trick, he would then go home and learn it. 

He remembers one technique called a “drop catch.” It’s considered one of the hardest to master. It works like this: A player slows the motion of the ball by keeping a flipper upright and releasing it just as the ball makes contact. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Escher Lefkoff's dad, Adam Lefkoff, who is also a collector and competitive pinball player. Feb. 1, 2023.

To help Escher learn, Adam took the glass off the top of an Indiana Jones pinball machine they had at home. The two practiced the move for 20 minutes at a time, figuring out the proper hand placement and timing out the exact millisecond to press each flipper button.

“Then three weeks later I was great at it,” he said. 

Courtesy of Adam Lefkoff
Escher Lefkoff (left) and Adam Lefkoff (right) pose for a photo after competing in a pinball tournament in Texas in 2010.

Escher credits his relationship with his dad for his world-class improvement and success. 

“I had this pinball life coach in my life telling me everything that I need to,” he said. 

Escher’s specialty became knowing hundreds — if not thousands — of different pinball game maps by heart. Each machine has a specific storyline, with special ways to earn bonus points and extra playtime. 

“It’s like if you played baseball and every single ballpark was completely different,” said Adam Lefkoff, Escher’s dad. “And Escher is one of the best at knowing all the rules.” 

A few weeks ahead of his next competition, he took some time to practice on one of his favorite pinball machines at home: A Jurassic Park-themed game, which features a map of the Nublar Islands and a giant animatronic T-Rex head.

Escher says every game has a story, and the first rule of winning means playing along. 

“That's why having a plan in pinball is so important because you gotta know what you're doing next. Have an end goal,” he said. 

As he practiced, the sound of theatrical music, bells, character voices and whistles filled the family barn — along with the classic sound of pinball flippers. 

Even though he’s played this game hundreds of times before, his eyes stay laser-focused on the ball. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Adam Lefkoff lifts the top of a machine to show its inner workings Feb. 1, 2023.

A taste of the silver crown

Escher’s first taste of pinball glory was at the age of 13. That’s when he nabbed first place at a world championship competition in Pennsylvania. The victory in 2017 helped him achieve the IFPA’s number-one ranking in the world for several months. 

Rankings regularly change as players compete in more IFPA tournaments around the world for points to boost their status, along with cash prizes. Roughly 25,000 members make up the association, an increase from before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Escher is just one of a growing community of younger players, said Josh Sharpe, IFPA’s president. More tournaments are being organized each year, and the sport now has a devoted following online through streaming platforms such as Twitch. 

“What this sport looks like 20 years from now kind of hinges on what this group of kids end up doing and making the sport their own,” Sharpe said. “It appears to be in good hands.”

After slipping in the rankings after 2017, Escher earned back his number-one spot at the Summer Pinball Classic in Wisconsin last fall. The first major threat to his crown came in January at a world championship in California. 

He went up against a veteran player at a Flash Gordon-themed game, which Lefkoff was less familiar with. His opponent scored over 1.4 million points. 

When Escher’s turn came up, he was nervous. 

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Some of Escher Lefkoff’s awards.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A repair manual sits on a machine.

“Flash is a game that I've actually had a history of going out on in majors,” Lefkoff said.

But he stuck to what he knew about the game map. 

He stepped up to the machine, wearing a signature pinball-themed hoodie and glasses. He stumbled at the beginning. But as he went on, he focused on hitting the ball against a spinner at the top of the playfield that helped him triple his score. 

He watched his score sail past 1.5 million points. 

And as the number on the screen kept rising, he backed away from the machine in awe and jumped in his dad’s arms. 

“I could barely put words together,” he said. “I was so giddy and happy.”

The trophy he won is a sleek silver statue of a pinball player in front of his machine. It sits in the hallway of the family pinball barn.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Escher Lefkoff practices Feb. 1, 2023.

The apprentice becomes the champion 

Escher and his dad like to walk down the aisle of trophies in the pinball barn together and recount memories of the various tournaments and matches.

“You can actually see we have over 200 tournaments played against each other, and I'm up currently 109 to 107 or something,” Escher said. 

“We were tied,” said Adam. “I could beat three-year-old Escher and five-year-old Escher with one arm tied behind my back. But 16-year-old Escher and 19-year-old Escher have been kicking my butt.”

Escher was 13 when the tides turned. 

Yeah, there's a serious inflection point there you can see,” said Adam, laughing. 

His next tournament will take place starting March 9 at the North American Pinball Championships in Wisconsin, where he’ll have to fend off another threat to his top spot.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Escher Lefkoff with one of his many awards, Feb. 1, 2023.

He’s worn the crown for 8 months straight. The IFPA’s longest winning streak is 126 months straight. 

“That will be hard to beat,” Escher said. 

Just like the silver ball, Escher’s streak will drain at some point or another. The question is, how long can he stay one with the machine? And number one in the world?

He hopes to continue playing competitively for as long as he can, just like his dad, and get more people interested in the sport. 

“The main thing that I always try to tell people is to play with a purpose,” he said. “Not just seeing it as like a random flip fest. Read the rule card and maybe look at the play field and find something that you want to do. And I guess look at it a little deeper than what you did before.”

Concerns about maintaining a number-one ranking crossed his mind. But in moments like this, he mainly focused on having fun. 

What will his next steps be? 

“Defend my title as best I can, I guess,” he said. “And take responsibility for your drains.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Escher Lefkoff gives CPR News reporter Matt Bloom a quick tutorial, Feb. 1, 2023.