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Electronic Arts names new CEO

Riccitiello replaces Probst at videogame giant

Electronic Arts topper Larry Probst unexpectedly gave up his CEO post Monday but is staying atop the world’s No. 1 videogame publisher by taking the new title of executive chairman.

John Riccitiello, Probst’s former prexy and chief operating officer who left the company in 2004, presumably out of some frustration that he hadn’t ascended to the primo post, is returning to take the CEO role.

Shift essentially lets Riccitiello return to EA under Probst, but with a higher title and more responsibility.

Probst was formerly chairman of the board, but as exec chairman, he remains a corporate executive with daily responsibilities atop the company.

Move comes as EA has just made it through a console transition with the launch of the Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 3 and is poised for what it hopes will be several years of growth as the devices are widely adopted.

The past year has been a slow one, with little growth for EA (or other publishers, for that matter) as many gamers saved their money to buy a new console and spent less on games as a result.

Probst has been a sales exec at EA since 1984, two years after the company was founded, and became CEO in 1991. In that time, he has overseen the company’s transition from a small videogame distributor that promoted its developers like rock stars to a Fortune 500 company best known for managing franchises such as “Madden NFL” and “The Sims,” as well as high-profile licenses such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.”

Riccitiello’s background reflects the publisher’s focus on brand management. Before joining EA as prexy and COO in 1997, he was chief exec of Sara Lee’s bakery division and led Wilson Sporting Goods.

His departure from EA in 2004 to become a partner in Elevation Partners, a media-focused private equity fund, was widely interpreted as a sign that he was frustrated that he hadn’t ascended to the CEO position.

At Elevation, he oversaw an investment of more than $300 million in the combination of independent vidgame developers Bioware and Pandemic.

EA recently made a deal with Pandemic to publish its upcoming game “Mercenaries 2,” bringing the execs back in contact.

While Riccitiello was gone, EA never named a replacement to the prexy-COO post, which is still unfilled.

Probst recommended to the board of directors that Riccitiello take his place as CEO.

Riccitiello will start his new job on April 2.

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