The Pinball VS Arcade Industry Battle of the 80s and 90s

During the boom times of the 80s and 90s, it would have been quite hard to imagine that one day the coin-operated (coin-op) pinball and arcade video games business would (almost) disappear.

With the current worldwide resurgence in pinball and old school arcade machines making a comeback in barcades, we thought we’d take a look at how prevalent pinball and arcade games were in the 80s and 90s in the biggest coin-op amusement market in the world, the good ole USA!

We delved deep into the available ‘Census of Service Industry‘ data from the US Department of Commerce, which kept record of “sources of receipts” for pinball and arcade machines in establishments across the US. What we found was quite eye-opening!

source: 1982 Census of Service Industries: Industry Series. Miscellaneous Subjects(SC82-I-5) – US Dept of Commerce

From the 1982 census data, there were 5,434 sites across the US where the general public could attend to get their fix of playing pinball and arcade games. The total US takings at these establishments was a whopping  USD$1.175 billion (for that year), with arcade machines earning the lion’s share with USD$890.4 million and pinball with $284.3 million. Remember, this was just before the video games crash of 1983. Interestingly, Pennsylvania had the highest number of establishments (268), with the split of takings between pinball (USD$34.2M) and arcade (USD$36.0M) being almost 50/50. Everywhere else, it was arcade video game machines that took more coins out of pockets.

source: 1992 Census Of Service Industries: Subject Series. Sources of Receipts or Revenue (SC92-S-4) – US Dept of Commerce

By 1992 the coin-op amusement landscape changed quite a bit. As evident by the numbers, pinball declined substantially while arcade machines broke through the magical USD$1 billion earnings barrier for that year – that is some serious amount of coins! Pinball had unfortunately slid back, earning their operators a poultry (when compared to arcade video games) USD$165M in 1992. With hindsight, pinball was going to be saved by some big name licensed machines – hello The Addams Family!

source: The Arcade Flyer Archive

As already hinted, it wasn’t all doom and gloom for pinball. According to Vending Times (which tracks the use of coin-operated games), in the mid-1990s the silver ball game had rebounded with takings of USD$912M in 1994 (that was 38% of the total coin-op market at the time) and then almost doubling to a dizzying USD$1.7 billion by 1997/8. Pinball had gone from junk to the golden goose in three short years! Before pinball operators could make it rain more coins, it was the 32-bit gaming era that sounded the death knell for not only pinball, but arcade video games too. By the end of the 1990s, the number of venues where one could play pinball and/or arcade machines dwindled dramatically. Things got acutely dire for pinball when the once mighty Williams closed up its pinball division near the end of 1999.

The beauty of hindsight is that we can assess and track the ups and downs of the pinball and arcade coin-op industry. With the current global video games industry sporting 2.6 billion gamers and takings in excess of USD$116 billion per annum, the time of amusement centres on every street corner are long gone. If pinball could tap even 0.5% of this (that’s USD$580M), then the great silver ball game will be here to stay and be enjoyed for many generations to come!

Enjoying some arcade and pinball action at Melbourne’s Invaders Amusement Centre
– circa early 80s