It's hardly a secret that Activision's "Call of Duty" series is a hit. Since the franchise got its start in 2003, it has posted sales in excess of $11 billion. But until you see how the games in the series have performed against other mega hits, like the "Halo" franchise or "Assassin's Creed," it's hard to truly appreciate just how dominant they are.
The NPD Group has compiled a list of the top selling console video games since 1995 for CNBC.com — and "Call of Duty" holds four of the top 10 spots — and nine of the top 20.
Activision titles, in fact, make up six of the 10 best selling games of the past 21 years, while the company's arch-rival, Electronic Arts, doesn't appear on the list at all. Nintendo, meanwhile, holds two — down from four in 2001, perhaps a sign of the company's ongoing struggles with the Wii U. Viacom holds one, with Take-Two Interactive Software claiming the remaining spot.
That Take-Two title - "Grand Theft Auto V" - could eventually top the list, too. Released in 2013, it hit the $1 billion mark in sales in just three days. And its well-received online mode has kept it popular, long after most games are in the discount bin.
On its most recent earnings call with analysts, Take-Two announced "GTA V" has sold 65 million units life to date, with 5 million unit sales occurring the previous quarter. And the benefits for the company extend far beyond retail sales. Revenues from "Grand Theft Auto Online" have expanded quarter-by-quarter since release, "exceeding expectations every reporting period," notes Mike Hickey, an analyst with The Benchmark Company.
("GTA V"'s sales, incidentally, are more than double those of 2008's "Grand Theft Auto IV" - which is the 20th best selling game of all time, per NPD.)
The list put together by The NPD Groups looks at gross sales and is not inflation adjusted. The company also did not provide specific dollar or unit sale figures for individual titles, since it long ago stopped releasing that information to non-subscribers, nor does it include numbers from digital sales platforms, such as Xbox Live or the PlayStation store — an increasingly relevant platform in the past few years, but one that's slightly less important in the 26 year timeframe of this data dump.
The data also does not include titles that were bundled with game systems. If so, Nintendo's Wii Sports would almost certainly be in a prominent position in terms of both dollar sales and units sold. (The company has sold 41.92 million systems and copies of the game in the U.S., according to the company. Worldwide, the Wi sold just under 102 million units.)
Similarly, "Super Mario Bros." from the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was a bundle game, leading to over 40 million copies being distributed since 1985. (All totaled, the Super Mario series has sold over 310 million units life to date.)
NPD, however, does offer some collective numbers to help investors assess the industry's overall performance. Life-to-date U.S. brick and mortar sales from the top five games in the list came in at $4.4 billion, said Liam Callahan, an analyst with The NPD Group. That's a $700 million improvement from five years ago, when the top five games (three of which have since fallen to lesser spots on the list) took in $3.7 billion.
Collectively, the top five titles have sold 79 million physical units through April of 2016.
Three titles have slipped from the top 10 since it was last compiled in 2011: "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," "Guitar Hero World Tour" and "Mario Kart Wii" all lost ground, but still remain in the top 20.
The rankings also point to changes in gamer buying habits. For instance, while "Call of Duty" firmly rules the list, last year's installment of the game "Black Ops III" only ranked 17th. That likely indicates a growing shift from brick and mortar to digital sales, as Activision, in its most recent earnings call, said the game is the top selling title life-to-date for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
That's news that might reassure investors, who were a bit nervous after the reveal of the trailer for this year's upcoming "Call of Duty" installment - "Infinite Warfare". The trailer became the most-disliked gaming video in YouTube's history, but analysts say that's unlikely to impact sales.
"We are not concerned about the decidedly more negative response to the trailer for the latest Call of Duty," says Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research for Wedbush Securities. "Despite this negativity year after year, Call of Duty still sells 25 million units or more on an annual basis, meaning gamer sentiment does not match gamer spending."