Do they still make pinball machines? They do, in a factory near Chicago — with most selling for players’ homes

CHICAGO — Due west of O’Hare International Airport, there is a neighborhood — formally, part of Elk Grove Village — that isn’t much of a neighborhood. It’s warehouses, drab gray offices. It’s Gertrude Stein’s point about “no there there,” a place so devoid of character, you long for a big-box logo. Companies here use “Solutions” in their names. Also, “Logistics” and “Global.” Everyone seems to be hiding something yet it’s nothing you’d actually care about.

Still, next time you’re in the neighborhood, glance over at 1001 Busse Road, a towering block of a building that’s so long and large, its slate facade meshes into the cement sky.

A company of 500 employees here makes one of Chicago’s greatest exports: pinball.

Seth Davis is planning to erect a great big sign out front soon — one that would announce this enormous building as the new headquarters of Stern Pinball, the leading pinball machine manufacturer in the world. Davis, president and CEO of Stern, with the upswept head of hair of an archetypal CEO and the lanky vibe of a Timothy Olyphant, also wants to put a huge pinball ball out front — a sort of playful, spherical kin to the Bean.

In fact, lately, there’s been so much pinball-centric activity coming and going from this single gigantic block of Elk Grove Village that you may need to stop and ask yourself:

They still make pinball machines?

They do, and Stern is not alone: There’s also Jersey Jack Pinball of Elk Grove Village, American Pinball of Palatine, Chicago Gaming Company of Cicero, as well as several others, in Wisconsin, Texas. But none as large as Stern these days. Stern, by several assessments, controls at least 75% of the pinball market now, internationally. It’s been so successful the past few years, the company has doubled its workforce since 2019 and sold enough new machines that they need to upgrade from a nearby Elk Grove Village factory of 100,000 square feet to this new one, with 160,000 square feet.

There’s cultural continuity to this.

“Yes, there’s a renaissance, or maybe a resurrection,” said Roger Sharpe, an author, pinball historian and former Stern designer in Arlington Heights, often credited with saving the game in the 1970s from censorious civic leaders. “But none of that is a surprise; it’s not the first time that people assumed pinball was over and done with.”

Pinball arrived in the world through a small, competitive network of North Side factories; it grew here in the 1940s and mostly died here by the 1980s with the advent of video games. Twenty-five years ago, the only pinball maker left was Stern, and for decades, its factory floor stayed busy in fits and starts, shutting only during the pandemic. The irony was, the pandemic pushed the business in the direction it was headed: With few arcades left and fewer bars making room for pinball, 70% of machines today are sold directly for players’ homes (and at least 30% of Stern machines are exported internationally). The company is not publicly traded and doesn’t offer sales stats, though others in the industry say a successful game means a few thousand machines sold. It also means games costing between $7,000 and $12,000, tangible beasts full of animatronics, video and more intellectual property than Disney+. Davis himself came to Stern after a couple of years at Disney+.

When he meets me at the factory entrance, he steps back to reveal a vast cubicle farm.

It looks like a large tech start-up.

There’s no posterity-minded museum of old Stern machines; many were sold over the years to keep the company afloat. The only obvious link to the past is the antique playing boards that line the walls of the creative development department, serving as decor. The room is massive, two floors, high ceilings and, unlike older factories, lots of light. There’s the sales and marketing team. The operations team. The folks in tech services. At the back, where the familiar pinball ka-ching, ka-chings can be heard, are designers, artists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software developers.

Higher up, lining second-story offices, are images from the IP that now drives Stern, a who’s who of the cultural images that grace its machines: “Star Wars” and Marvel and Metallica and “Ghostbusters” and “Lord of the Rings” and Harley-Davidson and Led Zeppelin and “Stranger Things” and “Jurassic Park” and “The Simpsons” and Rush.

On a riser at the center of the floor are a few machines still being tested, in particular the new “Jaws” machine that Stern just released, with input from Steven Spielberg. Above the machine is a video camera, fixed on the board. If anything is off during testing, designers rewatch the footage. It takes a couple of years to get this far. The plunger — the pull-knob that fires a pinball — was crafted to resemble the yellow barrels Robert Shaw shot into the shark; to get it right, Universal Pictures loaned them a prop barrel to digitally scan. A shark head bursts from the board, lifting a fishing boat into the air. A miniature chum bucket swings. The reedy voice of Richard Dreyfuss — who recorded lines that get triggered throughout gameplay — bounces out.

As digital as the guts of this thing may be, the experience is far from virtual.

You can see why, as wildly unpredictable as the industry has been, it requires a factory. “It’s such a handcrafted product,” said Jack Guarnieri, owner of Jersey Jack Pinball. “People forget, yet anyone who makes these things can tell you: build 10 machines in a row with the same parts and, depending how tightly a rubber is fixed to a post, or how a lever gets adjusted, that’s an assembly line full of small tweaks. It’s not a video game.

“And yet that’s also the best part — the randomness.”

The future, in a sense, is gentrification.

Home machines for the cost of a new motorcycle, always with recognizable names or titles. Other than a stray Elton John and KISS game, older machines stuck to broad themes, like pirates or poker. Gary Stern, now the executive chairman of Stern, said: “Today, if I tell you I’m doing a new zombie game, you go ‘Oh.’ But if I tell you I’m making a new ‘Walking Dead’ pinball — licensing does a lot of things.”

So before a game even reaches the factory floor now, there are considerations older generations of designers never imagined. Keith Elwin, Stern’s senior designer (and one of the highest-ranked pinball players in the world), made Stern’s games based on “Jaws” and Godzilla. “There are always sensitivities,” he smiled. No studio wants a gun in a game if its properties are attached. Approvals of every image, video and sound are typical. The “Jaws” machine has the likenesses of Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, but not the movie’s lead, Roy Scheider, who died in 2008; his estate wouldn’t OK his image for a pinball machine.