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EA Takes to the 'Battlefield' Against Activision

There has never been a lot of love lost between Activision and Electronic Arts. The two video game publishers fight over just about everything.

Computer gamers queue to try out "Battlefield 3"
Patrik Stollarz | AFP | Getty Images
Computer gamers queue to try out "Battlefield 3"

But with Tuesday's launch of EA's"Battlefield 3,"the clash is taking on a particular sense of importance. At stake: The supremely profitable shooter genre – and possibly the fate of EA's long-in-the-making turnaround.

"Battlefield 3," if you've missed the near omnipresent commercials and billboards, is a modern military shooter developed by EA . Driven by one of the most startlingly lifelike graphics around, the game hopes to steal some of the thunder from Activision's "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3," the latest installment in the multi-billion dollar franchise.

For the past two years, "Call of Duty" has set entertainment industry opening day records – and it's a virtual lock-in that it will do so again this year. (Last year's game, subtitled "Black Ops" had opening day sales of $360 million in the U.S. and U.K – and went on to become the best selling video game of all time.)

And while "Battlefield 3" is unlikely to knock it from its perch, MKM Partners' Eric Handler recently upped his 2011 sales estimates for the game to 8.5 million copies.

That's a monster hit – and it could be the shot of confidence EA needs to finally convince investors once and for all that it has turned the corner after years of less than stellar results.

It's also not a bad bet. While EA's reboot of "Medal of Honor"(which went up against "Black Ops last year) fell short, the last title in the "Battlefield" franchise had total sales of 8.5 million units. And when EA debuted the new look of this year's game, gamers quickly lined up to reserve a copy.

Preorders for "Battlefield 3" were 10 times as high as they were for "Bad Company 2" – and EA has heavily marketed the game in every media to raise awareness among the mass market.

Analysts say part of EA's plan in making the game so omnipresent is to leverage negative feelings some core gamers have toward Activision, following the abrupt dismissal last year of two top executives who created "Call of Duty" and ran the company's Infinity Ward studio.

"We believe that many core gamers reacted negatively after the well-publicized upheaval at Activision’s Infinity Ward studio and after the introduction of a $50/year Call of Duty Elite premium subscription plan last month (in comparison to EA’s free Battlelog service)," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities.

Pachter's 2011 sales estimates call for 4 million copies to sell on PCs, with the other 4 million on consoles. However, he notes, if the game's combined review score on MetaCritic stays at 92 or higher, the console number could go as high as 8 million. (Reviews based solely on the PC version stood at 93 Monday night. EA held critics to a release day embargo for the console version.)

"Battlefield 3" isn't without its problems. The public beta test of the game revealed many flaws (which the development team had worked hard to correct by launch). And Xbox 360 players who want to experience the game at its graphical best will need to install a HD texture pack, which gobbles up 2 GB on their system's hard drive. Those that choose not to do so (or are unable to, if their system lacks a hard drive) will see notably less impressive images on screen.

Ultimately, while "Battlefield 3" could be a big sales win for EA, it isn't likely to have any sort of real impact on "Modern Warefare 3" sales. Pre-orders of the Activision title have hit record highs for the company, indicating that fans of previous games in the saga are eager to stick with it.

While there's certain to be plenty of cross-pollination – with "MW3" players picking up a copy of "Battlefield 3" to check it out - few (if any) are likely to opt solely for a new game in the same genre over the familiar.

That's in part due to brand loyalty and ingrained habits, but it ultimately boils down to something much more fundamental. While the single player campaigns of these games hold some appeal, it's the multiplayer that keeps players playing throughout the year.

Put simply: If all of a player's online friends are playing "Modern Warfare 3," it's a safe bet that person is going to buy a copy as well.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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