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PlayStation 3 pulls ahead of Xbox 360 with 77 million consoles sold

In North America, the battle’s over: As this console generation winds down, the Xbox 360 has come out as the winner. It has been the best-selling console month in and month out almost without a break since Microsoft released the redesigned model in June 2010. Things are different on a global scale, though. Back in November the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 were neck and neck in worldwide sales, hovering around 70 million each according to corporate tallies. Still distant from the Nintendo Wii’s roughly 100 million global total, but impressive nonetheless. According to research firm IDC, though, the PlayStation 3 has pulled ahead of the Xbox 360 as the two head into what is likely their final year.

IDC published its latest broad report on the video game console industry, “Worldwide Video Game and Entertainment Console Hardware and Packaged Software 2012 – 2016 Forecast,” at the end of December. According to IDC’s tallies, Sony inched past Microsoft during the holiday season, with approximately 77 million PlayStation 3s sold compared to 76 million Xbox 360s.

While the diehard fans of both consoles will likely see IDC’s report as new ammunition for fruitless and obnoxious forum comment wars, the numbers don’t tell the full story of who has “won” this console cycle. It’s not so simple. For example, Sony didn’t start selling PlayStation 3 consoles at a profit until 2010, around four years after the console first released. Meanwhile the Xbox 360 was sold at a profit starting in January 2008, just over two years after that machine came out. That’s just one factor that determines how successful the two companies’ console businesses have been over the past seven years total.

What matters in terms of the video game industry going forward is this: Both Microsoft and Sony have been successful enough this past console cycle to justify massive investment in putting out new machines. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720, whether they’re called Orbis and Durango or Thebes and Kryptos, will be commercially viable when they come out, and therefore viable venues for game makers to ply their trade.

IDC’s report also bears that out: Game consoles and disc-based video games are going to continue selling despite the increases in digital sales. “It doesn’t appear that alternative platforms—set top boxes from cable companies, Web-connected smart TVs, and so on—are positioned to materially disrupt the trajectory of the ‘big 3′ console OEMs in 2013 or 2014,” said IDC gaming research manager Lewis Ward, “Discs will remain the console game revenue mainstay for years to come.”