Silverball Renaissance: Pinball in Denver Revitalizes Retro Game Culture

Pinball in Denver, pinball players at Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown
Visitors to the 2022 Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown try out a variety of pinball games.

“The ball is always wild!” – Harry Williams, pinball pioneer

Pinball may not have a reputation as a cutting-edge sport, but it’s back on the rise in Denver – with world champions to prove it. This classic game is drawing players from all over the world to the arcades of the Mile High City. Pinball in Denver is on the rise and we’re here to tell you why. 

Pinball players in Denver at the Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown
The Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown was started by Holly and Dan Nikolich in 2004. Pictured: Pinball players at the 2022 event.

A Revival: Pinball in Denver

Pinball, for the unfamiliar, is an arcade game in which the player controls flippers to hit a metal ball around a playfield — typically themed based on a popular film, TV show, or other creative work. Points are scored by hitting targets while preventing the ball from rolling out of the field of play. The result? An addicting combination of reflexes, timing, and a bit of luck. To put it simply, pinball is easy to learn, but difficult to master.

“It’s not the same every time, unlike a video game, which tends to be more linear,” says Dan Nikolich, co-runner of the annual Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown in Denver. “The physics of a real ball rolling around are very unique. The game is never the same twice. That’s what makes it interesting. Every time you play it’s different.”

Pinball’s tactile, kinetic nature contributes to its popularity as the world grows ever more virtual. “We live in a very digital world today. With video games, phones and computers. Everything is digitized,” Nikolich says. “Pinball is a game that you actually physically interact with. You get to watch the ball interact with other things. And that’s what makes it interesting because everything else that we’re going to do today is very digital. With pinball, you can manipulate something inside the real world.”

Due to this combination of factors, pinball has experienced a major resurgence in recent years, especially in the Denver area. “It’s popular with everyone from 5-year-olds to 85-year-olds,” Nikolich says. “You get to meet all these interesting people, whether they’re doctors, lawyers, mechanics, carpenters, whatever it is, it’s this shared passion. That’s what’s so cool about it.”

The Denver pinball community has welcomed droves of newcomers with open arms. “You don’t have to be great,” Nikolich explains. “You can just step up and have fun. Everybody has access to pinball. It’s a very low barrier to entry, so you can go learn to play and meet some really great folks in the process. Pinball players tend to be very open, and they’ll teach you how to play and talk with you and tell you what to do. And I think that there’s just a camaraderie there that is available with new folks.”

Dan adds that the online video game streaming platform Twitch has played a large role in the rise of pinball’s popularity, with many popular pinballers live-streaming their practice and competitions.

While this may not be common knowledge just yet, Denver is one of the most active pinball cities in the world. “It’s been a hotbed for pinball for at least 10-15 years – very, very hot,” Nikolich says. “It’s grown tremendously. The cool part is, there’s a little bit of everything here for everyone, depending on what you like about it. Some people like to play competitively. Some people like to fix games or are into the art, the pop culture part of it. It’s built this community in the Denver Metro area where people travel around and get to meet people from all walks of life.”

Pinball player plays Willy Wonka themed pinball game in Denver at Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown
A visitor to the 2022 Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown enjoys a Willy Wonka-themed game.

The Young Guns

Denver’s newest generation of pinballers is exciting – actually, exciting would be a bit of an understatement. If you haven’t heard the name Escher Lefkoff yet, remember it: he’s the pinball world champion, and he’s from the nearby town of Longmont. At just 19 years old, Escher has won tournaments at events like the Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown for well over a decade and reached the top ranking in the world last June.

Zach McCarthy, an 18-year-old out of Conifer, has won his fair share of major championships as well and has made a comfortable home for himself alongside Escher among the top players in the world. “There’s been a lot of really great players for a long time here,” Nikolich says. “The old guard has been able to play with some of these newer guys who have been playing since they were kids, and they’ve just taken it to a whole new level.” Keep an eye on the International Flipper Pinball Association rankings online, and you’re bound to see Escher and Zach alongside many other Colorado pinballers jockeying for the top spots. 

Rocky mountain pinball expo in Denver
The Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown draws not only pinball players but mechanics, collectors, and classic gamers of all kinds.

Denver’s Biggest Annual Pinball Event

Dan and his wife, Holly, started the Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown in 2004. After college in the early 2000s, they wanted to share their passion for the game with the general public. “You couldn’t play very many places in Denver at the time,” Nikolich says. “So we just thought, ‘Hey, this would be a fun thing. We’re just going to try this out and see how it goes.'”

The first event drew around 250 guests. Nearly 20 years later, The Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown has grown to over 4,000 visitors from all over the globe each year, and now features a wide variety of events and vendors, with the goal of promoting pinball and classic gaming in the Rocky Mountain region. “Our goal is, three days a year you come to play with us, but hopefully, you go to other places and you enjoy pinball at your local bar or your local brewery, your local arcade, near you or around the state,” says Nikolich. “We want to make sure that we’re bringing new people in as well as providing tournaments for players who are really seasoned, so we try to have a little bit of everything for whatever aspect of pinball and gaming that you love.” 

A Bright Future Ahead

Denver’s pinball renaissance, alongside the influx of pinball young guns lighting it up, signify exciting things for the future of pinball in Denver. “It’s continuing to grow like crazy,” Nikolich says. “It’s definitely on the upswing still. There’s this golden resurgence era that’s happening right now.”

Nikolich had the pleasure of watching the local pinball community grow steadily over the past two decades. “You get to see somebody come in, and they’re wearing a Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown shirt that’s 15 years old, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is my kid. I’m bringing him down here because I had such a great time and it was a memory for me.’ They enjoyed it so much that they want to come back and share that same experience with their kids. It’s pretty great.”

With the growing popularity of pinball as a whole, the wild success of events like the Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown, and the rise of talented young players like Zach McCarthy and Escher Lefkoff, the future of pinball in Denver is blindingly bright.

The 2023 Showdown takes place September 29-October 1. Visit to learn more.

All images provided by Rocky Mountain Pinball Showdown/Holly Nikolich


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