PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Most people might think the game of pinball is just about punching buttons when the small silver ball gets near a flipper. But as Zoe Vrabel would tell you — it’s so much more than that.
The 32-year-old is the world’s first top female pinball champion. She first started playing pinball 10 years ago.
“I was a girlfriend when I started playing,” she told KOIN 6 News. “I think most of the women I knew were also girlfriends who got brought into the hobby by a male partner.”
But after that relationship ended, Vrabel said it was already too late to try and walk away from pinball.
“I didn’t want to give pinball up,” she said. “I like it too much.”
Now, a decade later, Vrabel is ranked third in the world for women’s pinball and 297th in the world overall, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA). She’s also a former woman’s world champion and considers herself one of the top five players in Portland.
“People know my name and that’s a little bit weird,” said Vrabel, who works in higher education. “In Portland, it’s more if you’ve seen me play you remember me; I kick a lot, I’m an animated player. I’m someone you notice is getting high scores.”
But Vrabel wants to do more for the game of pinball than set high scores and win trophies: she wants to see more women playing the machines.
“If we highlight the many talented women we currently have, more talented women will say, ‘Oh this is for me, too,'” Vrabel said.
Vrabel joined the IFPA as an advisory board member to try and help create policies to interest women and get them to stick around.
“You want to make the people around you feel welcome and safe and like they’re part of the same thing you’re also a part of,” she said.
Checking these boxes will help make pinball more gender-balanced because, in Vrabel’s opinion, they’re “something you should be doing in your hobby just as much as in your professional life and your family and social life.”
“This is a way to recognize under-represented people who are doing great things and let people know they are welcome,” Vrabel added.
She believes many talented women are out there — the trick is figuring out ways to shine the same limelight on them that male players attract.
“You look at the national championships that we have in the U.S. every year — maybe one or two women who qualify for it,” she said. “You look at the international championships — all men, every time. I don’t know of a single woman who has played in it and that’s ridiculous.”
Still, Vrabel said there are more women taking up the hobby today than there were when she got started.
“It’s not just me anymore and that feels great,” she said. “It felt very lonely 10 years ago and now I’m realizing there’s nothing special, I just got here a little bit earlier.”
Vrabel encourages everyone to give pinball a try if only to learn more about it and find out “if you enjoy the motions of the initial experience.” She said that many of the newer pinball machines have many rules to get used to but there’s still a large element of luck, especially with the older machines.
“There’s a lot more luck involved and it’s fun to try and bend luck to your will and say, ‘No, I want the ball to go over there right now.’ I think older games are a really good expression of that,” Vrabel said.
She even encourages people to get physical with the machines.
“I think the older games are really about the nudging and the moving of the machine and the flipper skills,” she said. “Nudging and moving the ball is very much an allowed and encouraged part of the game.”
You can see Oregon’s top players compete at the State Pinball Championship on January 18 in Hillsboro.
KOIN 6 News anchor Jennifer Hoff’s series, Women Crush Wednesday, highlights women who are crushing it. Who do you know breaking the glass ceilings, inspiring others, doing good? Send a message to Jennifer Hoff.