Annual expo unites the pinballer community at Oakland U

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

When John Kosmal played his first pinball game at age 9, he found a hobby for life.

As an adult, the Rochester resident has collected more than 160 pinball machines and found a robust community of locals who share his passion. In 2010, weary of traveling to pinball shows in Ohio or Illinois, Kosmal decided to start his own event to unite Metro Detroit’s pinball community and bring new players into the fold.

The resulting event, the Michigan Pinball Expo, returns Thursday through Sunday for its seventh year at Oakland University.

The event attracts a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 attendees who have the opportunity to play 100 to 200 different machines. Although there’s an admission charge at the door, no quarters are needed — all the machines are set to free play mode.

Dearborn Heights resident Eric Avedesian, a friend of Kosmal, has served as the expo’s repair technician since the event began. He says the event draws plenty of hardcore pinball players, particularly for competitive tournaments throughout the weekend. But Avedesian says the event is just as welcoming to attendees at all levels of interest and ability.

“I am definitely not a top-tier player, and I’ve played many more games that were bad than good,” Avedesian says. “It’s just the camaraderie and the talking ... with these guys. I’ve made more friends through pinball than I can count.”

The Michigan Pinball Expo is structured to be as child-friendly as possible, including providing portable stools for the players.

For many of the local pinball aficionados who organize the show, their interest in the hobby was rooted in early childhood. Kosmal recalls at age 9 staying at a KOA Campground and going inside the arcade to escape the summer heat, where he was drawn to a newly installed 1981 Bally Centaur pinball machine.

“I watched the older kids play it for about an hour or two and then they finally took off,” Kosmal says. “I just jammed on that machine the rest of the night … I continuously played that for a couple of months.”

Given that early fascination with pinball, Kosmal and his team have structured the expo to be as children-friendly as possible, even going so far as to provide portable step stools for pint-sized players.

“We want the kids who can’t see over the glass to be able to step up and really enjoy the game,” says pinball enthusiast and expo electrician Greg Byrnes. “It’s amazing how many times you’ll see all the kids running around with their stools, picking which game they’re going to play next.”

Collectors will come from as far away as Hawaii and the Netherlands to exhibit at the expo. But a substantial portion of the machines on display will come from the collections of the Metro-area organizers, most of whom own at least 20 machines.

“They’re kind of like Lay’s potato chips,” Avedesian laughs. “You can’t have just one.”

What keeps Metro Detroit’s enthusiasts enthralled with these machines? Opinions vary, but they all come back to a similar concept: In an age when the majority of entertainment is built at the microchip level and presented on a screen, pinball is a uniquely tangible kind of fun.

“That’s a real ball with real flippers and physical targets, and you have to make it hit these targets and hit these ramps,” Byrnes says.

“You don’t have to learn a cheat code or some virtual thing. You have to create or gain a skill that can allow this actual, physical item to play properly.

“And that’s, I think, a little bit more exciting than playing something on a monitor.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Michigan Pinball Expo

9 a.m.-11 p.m. Thurs. -Sat. and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

Oakland University

2200 N. Squirrel, Rochester

Tickets: $15 kids, $20 adults

(248) 895-8805