Larry Probst





Chief Executive Officer of Electronic Arts

Born Lawrence F. Probst III, c. 1951; married Nancy; children: Scott, Chip. Education: Received undergraduate degree from University of Delaware.

Addresses: Office —Electronic Arts, 209 Redwood Shores Pkwy., Redwood City, CA 94065-1175.

Career

Held sales positions with Johnson & Johnson and Clorox; worked for Activision, 1982-84; joined Electronic Arts, September, 1984, as vice president of sales; senior vice president of distribution, after January, 1987, president, 1990—, chief executive officer, 1991—; chair, 1994—.

Sidelights

Larry Probst helms Electronic Arts (EA), the largest independent videogame publisher in the world. Chief executive officer of the company since the early 1990s, Probst has led EA to dominance in the highly competitive field of interactive entertainment. By 2002, it was No. 1 in American sales and took in some $2.5 billion in revenues worldwide. "Under Probst," declared Newsweek journalist N'Gai Croal, "EA took what was an unpredictable hit-driven business dominated by iconoclastic Japanese creators and turned it into a machine that relentlessly delivers high-quality blockbusters, like clockwork, aimed primarily at mainstream North American and European audiences."

Larry Probst

Born in the early 1950s, Probst studied business administration at the University of Delaware, and spent several years in sales at Johnson & Johnson, the personal-care products maker. He moved on to a similar position with Clorox, but was recruited in 1982 by Activision, the leading videogame software maker at the time. Activision was thriving as the developer of games for the popular Atari system back then, and Probst learned the business before jumping ship to rival company Electronic Arts.

Probst had been hand-picked for the job of sales vice president by EA's enigmatic founder, Trip Hawkins. He was given carte blanche to hire a direct sales team, which was a first in the gaming industry. This helped EA increase its market position considerably over the next few years. In early 1987, Probst became a senior vice president for distribution, and was made company president three years later when Hawkins departed to launch his new venture, 3DO. 3DO was a hardware gaming console, and the first to use the compact-disc format, but it retailed for nearly $700 and had some technical issues. EA was a major shareholder in 3DO, and made games for it as well, and Probst was faulted at the time for not pulling the plug on the 3DO strategy soon enough.

Probst was named EA's chief executive officer in 1991, which gave him the freedom to pursue a new corporate plan to conquer the console gaming market. Until then, EA had mainly made games for PCs, but a new generation of Sega and Nintendo players was capturing large numbers of devotees. Probst oversaw a massive expansion of EA over the next decade. It went from $100 million in annual sales in 1991 to six times that five years later. He bought out eight other game-makers, and invested in several more. EA became the leader in domestic sales in United States, in part by putting out popular releases in all formats, from PlayStation to Nintendo. In the mid-1990s, it moved into valuable new Internet territory with Ultima Online, a multi-player subscription game that can accommodate up to 3,000 players at a time.

EA's top sellers were the Madden NFL Football game, and its "Sims" series, which had a number of popular PC titles. Company revenues skyrocketed in 2002, though the company had actually issued fewer titles than the year before. "We do fewer things, and we do them better," Probst conceded in an interview with Time International writer Chris Taylor. "We don't just throw something at the wall and hope it sticks."

Probst is the boss of some 5,000 employees worldwide from his office at EA's Redwood City, California, headquarters. By 2004, EA's sales figures were nearing $3 billion, and the company's stock was also performing well after posting profits of $577 million. Even he confessed to a bit of astonishment when he reviewed his career. When he joined EA, he told a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, "we had about 40 or 50 employees and $8 million in revenue, and it was a pretty different thing. I don't think any of us could have imagined that we would have this kind of growth and this kind of success over the past 20 years. It's been phenomenal."

Probst had continued to lead the company into new and lucrative strategies, including tie-ins with major movie studios for games that mimicked blockbuster films, such as The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchise. The internal structure at EA has sometimes been compared to that of the famed Hogwarts academy for young wizards that the fictional Potter attends. There are several teams at the company, and each is responsible for their own game development and sales. Each tries to outdo one another, though they do share some of technical leaps—the same highly realistic blade of grass on the field of Madden NFL 2003, for example, can also be found in the next Harry Potter title.

As for the future of the gaming industry, Probst was hesitant to make concrete predictions. "I can't give you a vision ten years out," he told the interviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. "Anybody that pretends that they can, get as far away from them as you can get because they're making it up. Five years, in terms of what are the products going to look like, imagine Nemo-like graphics with much more realistic characters and animation."

Recognizing the growth of the industry since he joined EA in 1984, Probst has led the company into educational ventures with the film school at the University of Southern California and another with high-tech leader, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. The San Francisco Chronicle journalist asked him a few obvious questions near the interview's close. "No, I don't know the cheat codes," Probst replied. "And to be very honest, I don't spend a lot of time playing games. I spend a lot of time watching people play games. My most favorite games tend to be the ones selling the best at that moment." He did admit to one memorable Atari title, a game that came out in 1983. "My favorite is [an] Activision-published [game] called Seaquest," he told the newspaper. "I was really good at it, really good."

Sources

Newsweek, December 29, 2003, p. 101.

New York Times, May 8, 1995, p. D7.

San Francisco Business Times, September 26, 1997, p. 8A.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 9, 2004, p. J1.

Time International, July 7, 2003, p. 46.

—Carol Brennan



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