PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Hillsboro’s Next Level Pinball Shop & Museum is trying to make it two years in a row as a winner in a prestigious award category for the tight-knit global pinball community.
The business, located at 1458 N.E. 25th Ave. in Hillsboro, was named last year as the No. 1 favorite pinball location by “This Week In Pinball,” an online publication dedicated to the game, which diehards refer to as the sport of pinball.
“(‘This Week In Pinball’) is a big news source for the pinball community,” said the store’s marketing and museum director, Connor Stowe. “Which is a niche community, but it’s really exciting when you’re in that community. It’s a pretty big deal.”
The annual TWIPY Awards — named using an acronym for the website — showcase the best of pinball every year. It not only provides readers and aficionados with fan-favorite categories like “best location to play at,” which Next Level is up for again this year, but it’s also the definitive ranking system for new pinball machines that get made every year.
Next Level won the most votes in the “best pinball location” category last year, receiving more votes than world-famous locations like Old School Pinball Experience in São Paulo, Brazil, and the Logan Arcade in Chicago.
Chicago is a hub of the pinball community, since pinball manufacturing companies like Stern Pinball are based there. Stowe said that’s made locations like Logan Arcade frontrunners for years, and that venue even had repeat years atop the list before.
“We’re actually going for a repeat this year,” Stowe said. “It was kind of a surprise when we ended Logan Arcade’s streak.”
Stowe said that people don’t tend to think of suburbs like Hillsboro when they think of the world’s greatest pinball venues, but he added that it’s precisely because Next Level is located in Hillsboro that their model has been able to grow.
“Our concept wouldn’t work in a downtown like Portland or Chicago,” Stowe said. “We just wouldn’t be able to afford the space for all these pinballs.”
As it stands, Stowe says Next Level has over 200 pinball machines, making it the fourth-largest collection of pinballs in the world. Some of the others aren’t open year-round like Next Level is, however.
Next Level also has a couple hundred arcade games, as well, for a total collection of more than 450 machines housed at the store.
“It’s kind of hard to describe unless you come here and see it for yourself,” Stowe said. “Our walls are basically 20,000 square feet of pop culture, and I like to tell people that to play all the games we have would take three and a half days. You literally cannot do it all in one day.”
It’s all thanks to Oregon, and the greater Pacific Northwest, having a robust pinball community.
Oregon has more pinball machines than anywhere else in the country, according to PinballMap.com, and the Portland area has the highest concentration in the state.
Not only are there massive, pinball-centric halls like Next Level, but there are also bars and arcades all over the Portland area — Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade and Bar in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood being among the most famous — that have banks of pinball machines for patrons to enjoy.
Stowe said businesses in the arcade and pinball community bolster each other, and it’s part of why there is a high concentration of pinball technicians — the people who keep the machines working, a highly specific skill and a necessary one for maintaining a pinball collection — in the Pacific Northwest.
“We all sort of build each other up,” Stowe said. “It helps to recruit more people to the sport and the hobby.”
Next Level’s business model leans into the hobbyist realm of the game.
It’s not just a place where folks can go to play pinball to their hearts’ content, but it’s actually a museum where patrons learn more about the history of the sport and of the iconic machines that line the walls.
Stowe creates little information cards that get inserted into or near each machine, giving players the history of that pinball game and its manufacturers.
“We’re such big advocates of the hobby in general,” Stowe said. “We’ve created our own community for it. We’ve built up our Next Level community, but there’s also just such a larger pinball community that Portland enjoys. I don’t even think Portland knows that we’re sort of a hotbed for the sport.”
Voting is open for the TWIPY Awards through Monday, Jan. 16, so there’s only a few more days to cast a vote online.
Those interested in casting a ballot or learning more about the competition and the pinball community can visit the This Week in Pinball website.
Next Level has already claimed a finalist spot, and now those finalists will be whittled down to the top 10 locations around the globe. Winners will be announced in March.