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John Riccitiello was an interesting personnel experiment when he came from outside the video game industry to become the No. 2 executive at Electronic Arts a decade ago. He is now the company’s CEO and one of the industry’s most respected executives.

Now Riccitiello is replaying that same experiment: He announced today that he’s hired John Pleasants (pictured left), a non-video game executive to be EA’s new No. 2. I’m not convinced it’s going to work again. EA has a lot of issues right now, including the challenge of its new rival, Activision Blizzard, which is in the midst of merging the game assets of Vivendi and Activsion. EA is also in the middle of a takeover battle with Take-Two Interactive and will need to revive its hit-making operation. So Pleasants is going to have to learn fast. And there won’t be a lot of time for on-the-job training.

EA announced this morning that Pleasants will be president of global publishing and chief operating officer at the Redwood City, Calif. company, which, alongside rival Activision Blizzard, is one of the two biggest independent video game publishers. Pleasants will be in charge of the company’s global publishing organization, corporate communications, government affairs, online operations and central development and technology teams. He will report to Riccitiello. In a statement, Riccitiello cited Pleasants’ expertise as a business operator, knowledge of online consumer relationships and an ability to lead big teams.

Pleasants was previously CEO of Revolution Health Group and CEO of Ticketmaster, and he held a variety of consumer marketing roles at Frito-Lay. He follows in Riccitiello’s footsteps in this sense. Riccitiello was a consumer marketing expert who was the head at bakery goods maker Sara Lee and served as CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods.

This is going to be a little tricky. Pleasants will be the boss of experienced video game executives such as Gerhard Florin, head of international global publishing, and will interact closely with the company’s four major game publishing divisions.

It raises the familiar question in the industry: Are video games works of art, or are they packaged goods? Clearly, EA’s answer here in appointing an executive like Pleasants is that they are packaged goods. Other companies have done well with executives who are steeped in video game production. Mike Morhaime, head of Blizzard, for instance, has been making games for the past 17 years. Now Blizzard’s World of Warcraft online game has 10 million paying subscribers.

In hiring Pleasants, Riccitiello has brought aboard an outsider who is more like himself. That gives the company a pair of outsiders running the show. I thought that someone like Phil Harrison, who just left the top development job at Sony for Atari, would have been a more likely candidate for the No. 2 job at EA.

An EA insider tells me the logic of bringing aboard Pleasants has to do with his online experience. Revolution Health is a health online information site and Ticketmaster, of course, sells gobs of tickets for all sorts of events via online. Riccitiello has said that EA will have to depend on future growth from digital business models in the future. That includes online games, virtual goods currency, and digital distribution of games. In that respect, Pleasants has a lot of experience.

Normally, a big company has someone who is an outsider in one of the top jobs and an insider in another. Since Pleasants’ has operating experience, he can probably handle the operating part of the job. And EA also has four self-governing divisions that are run by longtime industry insiders. That helps. But Riccitiello is making a big bet here. We’ll see if it pays off.


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