Jack Guarnieri isn't the sort of guy who worries about fans dogging him everywhere—except, that is, when he walks into a pinball parlor.
It's a rainy afternoon in New York City, and Guarnieri is strolling the aisle of Modern Pinball, a popular arcade on 3rd Avenue, when a slender, middle-aged guy hovers near, then swoops up to ask Jack to pose for a selfie. The man's name is Oscar Terol. He's a tech rep from Barcelona. He comes to the U.S. once a year just to hit the arcades. And to him, Guarnieri is a celebrity.
"If you know pinball," Terol explains, "you know him."
This might be a good time to note that Guarnieri is better known as "Jersey Jack," and he's become a hero of sorts to those who work the flippers. His eponymous company is one of the last two pinball manufacturers in the United States, and while his competitor, Stern, is an enduring industry icon, Guarnieri started his company just four years ago, at a time when many had written off pinball as a dying hobby.
Legendary manufacturers like Midway and Bally were long gone when he decided to try reinvigorating the genre. But, dismal odds be damned, Jersey Jack is determined to revolutionize pinball with a multitude of digital effects and gizmos.
"I wanted to develop a full-featured mechanical game with new technology piled into it that would really be a sensory overload," Guarnieri explains over the arcade's din of literal bells and whistles. "When I started Jersey Jack Pinball in 2011, it was because I believed that the market would be there to support us."
Turns out, it was.
Jersey Jack's first game, The Wizard of Oz, has sold some 2,500 units, and he's booked 1,400 orders for the second, The Hobbit. Guarnieri's small staff hand builds all the machines in a 42,000-square-foot factory in Lakewood, N.J. "I don't have a machine sitting in my building without a customer for it," he says.
Guarnieri certainly doesn't lack for confidence, and so far it seems justified. However, there are plenty of reasons some are likely to remain skeptical of the business' outlook for success.
Pinball is not what you'd call a booming industry. In fact, it's been busy disappearing for 30 years now.
"Pinball went through a rough period in the 1980s and '90s—the video game depleted everything," explains Steve Zahler, co-owner of Modern Pinball, which has 29 games on the floor. "The machines are expensive to maintain, the parts are expensive, and rents are going up in big cities. On all fronts, it's just economically less feasible to have pinball machines over video games."
While the pinball's heyday—the golden age of Times Square arcades and teenage boys lining up to pump nickels into the slots—is long gone, the game is seeing a slow but steady resurgence.
The International Flipper Pinball Association, for example, now ranks some 23,000 players—and those are only the pros. There are pinball expos in Florida, Michigan, Illinois and California. An independent pinball movie is in the works, and New York league PinballNYC's website proclaims: "a pinball renaissance is upon us."
Building a New Generation of Pinball
Perhaps "renaissance" is a bit much, but there's definitely a buzz, and Jersey Jack is a good part of it.
Jersey Jack's Wizard of Oz features not two but five flippers, a digital stereo sound system, a 26-inch LCD backglass and enough varicolored LEDs to give the Vegas strip some competition.
And while licensing is nothing new to the segment (Stern Pinball, Jersey Jack's sole U.S. competitor, builds games including Avatar, Iron Man, AC/DC and Metallica), Jack scored his second coup by locking up the rights to build a machine based on The Hobbit, a movie whose global box office hovers near the $3 billion mark.
Judging from his Wizard of Oz table, Guarnieri's boast of having created a "sensory overload" game is not a hollow one. The table's panoply of spinning targets and flying monkeys, trumper bumpers and rollover targets, stereo sound and even a crystal ball that plays video—it all makes for an intense playing experience.
It's the sort of game that makes the palms of even seasoned players like Terol a bit sweaty. "It's Jack's first table, and it's good. It has many features," he says. "Parts of it are a little stressful. It's the sort of game you love over time."
From a business perspective, Zahler adds that the Wizard of Oz table is among the more popular machines on his floor. "A lot of customers gravitate to that game," he says. "It does very well in our place."
Good thing, because Jersey Jack's machines are a significant investment. A Wizard of Oz Emerald City Limited Edition retails for $9,500. A standard edition Hobbit will set an operator back $8,000. Still, Jack's prices are more or less in line with industry standards. Stern's Walking Dead limited edition table, for example, lists for more than $8,000.
The Game is Heating Up
Jack's tables clearly constitute competition for Stern, but Stern declined to discuss Jersey Jack—at least, not professionally. In an e-mail message, a company representative referred to Guarnieri as "a crook," making reference to a pending civil suit (one Stern is not a party to) that alleges Guarnieri stole some $1.6 million from an amusement company he ran between 2008 and 2009, and used the money to start Jersey Jack.
Guarnieri refers to the suit as "utterly without merit and a frivolous waste of judicial resources."
Meanwhile, Guarnieri is thinking about his next table. It's the brainchild of famous Pinball designer Pat Lawler, the man behind legendary tables like The Addams Family, which has sold north of 22,000 units and is widely regarded as one of the genre's best titles ever. Jersey Jack has given Lawler free rein to design the coolest game he can. "I'm hiring Michelangelo," is how Guarnieri puts it. "I'm not telling him how to paint."
And when that game comes out, Oscar Terol will probably fly from Barcelona to play it. Jersey Jack, he says, "is a sign of pinball coming back."