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De Pere becoming the center of state's growing pinball culture

District 82 Pinball held the state championship on Saturday
Posted at 10:33 PM, Jan 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-21 23:33:14-05

DE PERE — While for some, pinball might just be a classic arcade game, for players in this weekend's statewide championship it's much more than that.

Many of them have participated in big tournaments, including world championships, and won thousands of dollars in prize money.

Some players, like a father son duo from Appleton, have a storied connection to the game.

According to the International Flipper Pinball Association's website, Tom Graf is the 33rd ranked player in the world while his son Neil is ranked 8th overall.

"Growing up with my dad was a huge advantage. Going in early, he taught me everything basically and showed me the ropes to everything and brought me to all the tournaments," said Neil Graf.

Neil is 18 years old, but has already won multiple big tournaments. He says that what got him interested in pinball was the different nature of every game.

"Learning different things about different games because there's so many and memorizing all the different rule sets to every game, so it's kind of a different challenge," said Neil Graf.

For Neil's dad Tom, he got into the game fifteen years ago while looking through an arcade magazine. Now, he finds that pinball helps him decompress.

"For me it's just a big stress reliever. I get lost in the game and it takes away the stresses of the world," said Tom Graf.

Tom says that once District 82 opened, his son became interested and they started going to tournaments together. Now, they've seen it evolve into a celebration of pinball for enthusiasts across the country.

"Really its just become a mecca of pinball," said Tom Graf.

Owner Erik Thoren credits the rise of streaming big competitions on platforms like Twitch for growing the game both locally and worldwide.

"Wisconsin really has become like a central hub for pinball," said Thoren.

A central hub for the highest level of competition in the game.