EA chief says Battlefield 3 will take down Call of Duty

In the multibillion-dollar first-person shooter video game business, the war of words is on. Electronic Arts wants its Battlefield 3 game coming this fall to knock Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty game from its throne as the most popular game of the genre.

At stake in this competition is control of one of the biggest markets and the most rabid fans of video games. The leading combat games represent the state-of-the-art in video game technology, and the top game can generate more than $1 billion a year in revenues with each major release. Each company can be expected to spend more than $100 million on marketing and ads in this battle.

John Riccitiello, chief executive of EA, said at the Ad Age Digital Conference in New York on Wednesday that EA’s realistic modern combat game will launch in November in head-to-head competition with Activision Blizzard‘s next Call of Duty title. The whole “less filling, tastes great” debate among gamers and game publishers would be just plain comical if it weren’t for the fact that so much is at stake. Riccitiello compared the feud to the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry in baseball.

“This November, we’re launching Battlefield 3,” Riccitiello said. “It’s going up against the next Call of Duty, which is presently the No. 1 game in the game industry,” he said. “A game that last year did $400 million dollars in revenue on day one. [Battlefield 3] is designed to take that game down.”

EA has been busy touting the graphics and gritty realism of Battlefield 3 in video trailers released since the Game Developers Conference in March. Call of Duty has the advantage because Activision Blizzard has been releasing games every year that are growing in demand.

Riccitiello knows how to make people care about the battle as if it were a heavyweight boxing prize fight. But there’s some risk in his smack talk, particularly if EA doesn’t blow Activision Blizzard out of the water. Last year, EA touted the return of Medal of Honor, which sold millions of units after its launch in September. But the game received poor average reviews of 72 out of 100 on the PC (74 and 75 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3). Call of Duty Black Ops completely blew Medal of Honor sales out of the water and its ratings ranged from 81 to 88. Activision Blizzard has said its sales for Call of Duty games have crossed $1 billion for the second year in a row. EA’s stock price took a dip after the Medal of Honor game received negative reviews.

But Battlefield 3 clearly looks better than Medal of Honor and is being built by EA’s premiere DICE studio in Sweden. It has been in the works for a long time and EA has been pouring resources into making sure that the game is polished. Based on what I’ve seen, EA’s graphics and game play are the best yet from the Battlefield series. EA’s advantage is that it can attack Activision Blizzard from two fronts: Medal of Honor and Battlefield, alternating each installment from one year to the next.

Activision Blizzard executives have puffed out their chests as well. They said in February that their company has allocated more resources to Call of Duty games than ever before. The company has also talked about Project Beachhead, aimed at delivering a “best in class online community and service suite” for Call of Duty. It is creating a free-to-play version of the game for the Chinese market. But it hasn’t shown its hand for the next Call of Duty game yet.

All of that is friendly competition. But against this backdrop is a legal battle that has engulfed the players as well. Activision Blizzard fired the founders of its wholly-owned Infinity Ward game studio — the developer of Call of Duty games — for allegedly plotting to create a new studio financed by EA. EA has been dragged into the multiple lawsuits spawned by that dispute. The founders of Infinity Ward, Jason West and Vince Zampella, have started a new game studio, Respawn Entertainment, in partnership with EA. If they emerge from the litigation unscathed, then EA could have yet another team on hand to attack Call of Duty.

Overall, EA is the underdog, with a market value of $6.7 billion, while Activision Blizzard is worth $13.4 billion. But we’ll see how that changes when the games launch in November.