Big video game fans prove crucial to the industry

Core gamers, however, were not to blame. Chief Executive Daniel Dematteo said the company reduced its outlook to reflect an uncertainty inherent in the business this time of year. For most of the year, GameStop's main customers are reliable video game fans. Around the holidays, the company's customer base briefly shifts, as gamers' friends and families start poking around GameStop shelves looking for gifts. This is when things get more unpredictable, especially in the current economy.

In fact, in a recent conference call with analysts, Dematteo pointed to the success of new games such as Call of Duty: World at War,Gears of War 2 and World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. All three are targeted at game enthusiasts.

World of Warcraft, the world's most popular online game, brings in about half of the operating profit for its publisher, Activision Blizzard, according to analysts.

"If the core gamers and the avid gamers are with us through these very unpredictable times, that's a very, very good sign for us," said R. Richard Fontaine, GameStop's chairman, during the call.

So far, so good. Americans are spending more money than ever on video games — nearly $3 billion in November, according to the NPD Group. That was a 10% increase from the same month last year.

In 2007, people bought $18 billion worth of games, consoles and accessories. Even with discretionary budgets shrinking, the NPD Group expects this number to grow to at least $22 billion this year.

In contrast, U.S. consumer spending on home video is going down. Spending declined 2.4% for the first three quarters of the year, to $14.2 billion, according to industry tracker Video Business. The decline reflects lower purchases as well as a dip in rentals. Meanwhile, major pro sports leagues have begun cutting jobs and expenses, fearing that ticket sales will drop next year.

Hengst, 31, who lives in Los Angeles, recently bought the new Prince of Persia and the latest Call of Duty video games and estimates he spends a couple of thousand dollars a year on games.

"For me it's much like why I enjoy reading so much," Hengst said. "It's a form of escapism."

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