Portland pinball phenom is one of world's best
It's not easy to reach the top 10 in the world in anything, and Colin Urban doesn't plan on letting the standing go to his head.
He smiles and chuckles when talking about the subject of humility, and even about the predictable title some might give him: Pinball Wizard.
"You step back and say there are a lot of people who want to be in that position," said Urban, a Wilson High School senior and one of the world's best pinball players.
"I'm not going to win every tournament or world championship, but I got here, and that's great."
Based off a strong showing in 2019, in which he dominated International Flipper Pinball Association-sanctioned tournaments during one tremendous month in Australia, Urban has risen to No. 8 in the world overall in the IFPA standings and third among youth behind Johannes Ostermeier of Germany and Escher Lefkoff of the United States in the latest standings.
In fact, he's the No. 2 youth now, as Ostermeier just turned 18.
'He's going to be a No. 1 guy'
It all seems pretty surreal to Urban, 17, who began playing at age 5 with his father and mother, who were both pinball players and fans. At age 11, he pulled off a major accomplishment by besting Keith Elwin, regarded as one of pinball's all-time greats, in a one-on-one match at C Bar on Southeast Gladstone Street in Portland.
Urban has steadily established himself as one of the best. Just ask Ken Martin, the No. 1-ranked player in Oregon (in part because he can play tournaments in bars, after hours without minors permitted to play).
"He's going to be a No. 1 guy eventually in the world," said Martin, a pinball technician at Next Level Pinball Museum in Hillsboro, a new venue for pinball fanatics, where Urban recently won the state championship. "I would be surprised if he's not (No. 1). He's already a top-10 player.
"He's way better than me. I occasionally beat him, but he usually wins (handily)."
Urban beat Daniel Rone in the IFPA Oregon State Pinball Championship, a year after Rone beat him for the title. In 2018, Urban had claimed his first state championship.
The competitive Rone concedes that Urban just has the right stuff, including the stamina of youth — a big tournament involves playing many games on a variety of machines and accumulating points to come out victorious — and amazing strategic and focusing abilities.
"He's had enough time. He knows all the rules," Rone said. "His reflexes are better (with the buttons and flippers), and he doesn't get worn out like I do."
So, how does a youngster reach elite level in pinball, the game of previous generations? By playing a lot, Urban said, and trying to outsmart the games, literally, to score points. It begins with passion for the game, which his father, Thomas, and mother, Sara, have always had. His father introduced Urban to pinball at Ground Kontrol in downtown Portland.
"I just liked it. There was something different about it," said Urban, who, like his teenage peers, plays video games, but he sticks to Nintendo Wii.
"There's something unique and fun about it. Dad wasn't super serious, but he was into it. It was fun to do every couple weekends," he said. "Once I got a little older, and more into it ... we got a couple games at home, and I got even better. Once I got more into it and learned how to play better, I'd watched YouTube videos with game tutorials and skills to do. ... I just loved it from there."
Urban remembers entering the 2013 tournament at C Bar where he defeated Elwin on the game Eight Ball Deluxe. He just thought he would give it a try, Urban recalled, not knowing that the tournament, called Cascadia Cup, involved world-class players. He ended up qualifying second out of 64 players, but losing out in the final round.
"I started out strong. People didn't know who I was, and they just assumed they could beat me. I was just a kid," Urban said.
"(Elwin) won the tournament, but that sparked me to seek out the scene, and 'I can play with these players.'" He recalls the score against Elwin on Eight Ball Deluxe being around 3.5 million to 1.5 million points, and added, "He's not an overly emotional guy, but I'm pretty sure he was as shocked as everyone else."
High placings in tournaments and wins followed. Urban won his first tournament at C Bar in October 2014, and continued to do well through 2018.
Then came 2019, which he entered ranked about 40th. Urban spent a month in Brisbane, Australia, and won six tournaments of the 10 he played in (including besting Lefkoff in one tourney) to record the best month ever for an IFPA player, points-wise. He won 20 times in 47 tournaments and rocketed up the IFPA rankings.
Urban placed second in a world championship open event in Banning, California.
"I taught myself the skills, strategy and how to get the best scores as efficiently as possible, and how to keep a mindset in the right place in tournaments," Urban said. "When I first started, I had an issue because I felt so nervous before tournaments. I got better at that in the last year as my confidence has grown."
Life outside the pinball machine
Urban, while great, doesn't come across as a pinball geek. He enjoys school at Wilson High and plays for the Trojans' tennis team. His mother said he lives a balanced life as a teenager.
"We're really proud. Happy that he really found a passion pretty early in life. Not everybody is that lucky, right?" Sara Urban said. "We also feel fortunate, because we play together. My husband and I played pinball before Colin was born just for fun. We go to tournaments and play."
Pinball life is a fun family experience, she added. "We appreciate pinball because it's a different kind of community. Events are in person, and there is streaming of matches, and you can be a spectator in that way as well," she said.
Urban has traveled to play tournaments, including Australia and the biggest tournament in Pittsburgh, called Pinburgh. He's also played in California, Las Vegas, Seattle, Denver, Chicago and Vancouver, British Columbia, and will go to upcoming tournaments in Denver (IFPA North American Pinball Championship, March 5) and Fort Myers, Florida (IFPA World Pinball Championship, May 29-31).
Outfitted with bells, sounds, flashing lights and electric colors, pinball machines come in various designs, degrees of difficulty, scoring opportunities and plenty of "toys." They are patterned after aspects of American culture, including films, cars, fantasy characters and stories. Playing Lord of the Rings, feels like you're staring at Middle Earth. It's a pretty ornate game, which is typical of newer games.
Urban's favorite games are the new Stern game Jurassic Park and Attack from Mars, Indiana Jones and Corvette. His highest score ever? It was 63 billion on Attack From Mars. (It's not uncommon for Urban to come from several million points behind to win with one ball to play).
A common competition pits one player against another. They play an assortment of games in the match. The player who wins scores points, the losing player suffers a "strike" on their record; three strikes you're out. But, tournament formats vary; some competitions pit four players against one another.
Points for IFPA standings are attained through participating in high-level tournaments, not just your average local contests.
And, yes, there is money to be made. Smaller tournaments pay in "swag" and others pay about $100 for the win. Purses in big tournaments go into the thousands.
Urban realizes he can't make a living off being a pinball aficionado. But it's a nice side "hobby" that pays. He plans to study mechanical engineering and soon will decide on which college to attend.
Meanwhile, Urban walks the halls of Wilson High as a top-10 player in the world. Some classmates recognize him for that; others don't have a clue.
"Pinball is a niche thing. A lot of people can't relate to it, especially my age," he said. "They'll say, 'That's cool that you do that' ... to each their own."
And, yes, he has heard the expression "Pinball Wizard," famous from a song by The Who (1969) and later Elton John (1973).
Maybe he is one, "I guess," but he's not going to brag about it.
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