There are those who never play in pinball tournaments. They're happy to just play at home or in arcades, but never in competition. For most, it's because they're just happy to play pinball and don't feel the need to be competitive. For others, it's because they're terrified of how they'll rank.
I have to admit to being in the second category, up until recently. I know from sailboat racing though, that absolutely nothing improves your sailing abilities as much as trying to squeeze that last fraction of a knot from the slowest form of transport in the world.
I think the same is true of pinball. Coming from the EM world where rulesets are basic (to put it mildly), the main objective is just to keep the ball alive. Sure, there are sweeteners like "ten times points" targets and the like, but overall, the longer the ball is in play, the higher your score.
With modern pinball machines, the rule set is paramount, and this is where I struggle. Not only that, but pinball machines don't use linear scoring, in any real sense. A player who is slightly better than you, can score ten times your score on some machines, which is embarrassing if you're in a league game and happy with your 4 million point score only to notice that your fellow players are easily clocking in scores of 50+ million, and the high score on the machine is 864 million!
So, playing in a league and coming last repeatedly does nothing for one's pinball self-confidence, but there is a trick here. A secret sauce, if you will.
When I first started racing dinghies, I bought a second-hand Laser II. My friend and I sailed around the course at the back of the fleet (it's a two-person boat). We always knew we were last, not least because the committee boat would up sticks as soon as we crossed the finish line. Luckily, we found an arch-rival. The guys who came second-last! Week-in and week-out, we raced against those guys. We couldn't care who came first overall, or second, etc. We just wanted to beat our friends and rivals in that other boat. Some days we'd win, some days they'd win. And by "win" I mean, beat the other boat by coming second-last.
But a strange thing happened. We were so intent on beating each other, and worked so hard at improving our boat skills, that we slowly and unknowingly moved up the fleet. It actually didn't take long (maybe a couple of seasons) before we were competing for first and second place overall. What's interesting is that it didn't change a thing for us. All we cared about was beating those other guys.
In pinball, I don't really have the benefit of another back-marker, but I do have the benefit of keeping my own score history on the same machine. It's not the nice, consistent graph I'd like, and there are days when I come nowhere near to beating a score I clocked on an earlier attempt. But overall, as the rule sets begin to make a little more sense, I can feel my game play improving. I can now see the multipliers and try to work those up early in the game. I can see techniques for getting good scores on various machines, and I am more likely to try my hand at the skill shot.
I can definitely say that it is league play which is helping me improve. When you have the ignoble honour of appearing at the bottom of the league table, there is a strong motivator to try to get a better score. I can take my new scores and retrofit them to older competitions, and see how I might have fared had I been scoring as high (relatively speaking) as I am now. Of course, this presupposes that my opponents aren't also getting better!
Metallica backglass photo courtesy of ipdb.org.