Chris Nuttall EA v THQ in martial-arts fight

The top-selling video game for May on the latest consoles is unlikely to be disputed. UFC 2009 Undisputed, released on May 19, shipped 2m copies in its first two weeks, according to its publisher THQ, and looks likely to top the NPD charts when the research firm releases its figures on Thursday.

It’s a sign of the growing popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the sport of mixed martial arts.  It’s also a signal for THQ’s competitors, namely Electronic Arts, to seek a piece of the action.

At its E3 press conference this week, EA said it had a strategy to “re-energise and redefine the fight category.”  As well as the release of its Fight Night Round 4 boxing game on June 25, it announced a new global franchise in EA Sports MMA, as in Mixed Martial Arts, due for release in 2010.

It promised a “vast array of top fighters from around the world” would bring a new authenticity to one of the world’s faster growing sports.

That sounds ominous for THQ. EA is a rival in a higher weight category and it has any number of successful sports franchises from Madden NFL to FIFA soccer and Tiger Woods golf.

However, Brian Farrell, THQ’s chief executive, was bullish when I met him at E3. His company has just undergone a painful restructuring, but it is renowned for its fighting games, in particular the WWE wrestling franchise, which sold about 4.5m units for THQ last year.

“The licence that we control – UFC – is the definitive leader in the category,” he said.

“We have the league, we have all the fighters, so EA seems a little late to the party. We’ve got a great competitive advantage and we use some of the tech that we’ve had for ten years for building wrestling games.”

I later put these advantages to John Riccitiello, EA chief executive, and he seemed undaunted.

“Most of the athletes in mixed martial arts are unaffiliated,” he said.

“Harking back to 1999, we didn’t have an NFL licence and Acclaim did and we outsold them with a players’ licence, and we quickly got an NFL licence after that. Brian’s UFC game is already doing really well, but we feel that frankly there’s room for competition and we’re not afraid of it.”

So it sounds like both are talking a good fight. Look out for Round One in 2010.