Dexter White was the first in line.
A 25-year-old Baltimore police officer, White had arrived outside the Best Buy in Timonium nearly 48 hours ago to ensure that he would snag one of the coveted Sony PlayStation 3's going on sale today. By nightfall, he had set up his green tent and was ready to settle in with his sleeping bag and a supply of Pringles, Capri Sun and breath fresheners.
"I'm a die-hard Sony fanatic," said White, who took Wednesday and yesterday off from work to wait in line for one of the machines, which sell for $499 and $599. "When PlayStation 4 comes out, I'll do the same thing."
With just 400,000 of the long-awaited PlayStation 3's available, customers across the country had the same idea, forming lines outside stores from California to New York and Maryland.
Ardent gamers wanted the PlayStation 3 for themselves. But others figured to make a quick profit by flipping them for much more. One seller on Craigslist Maryland was asking $5,000 yesterday for a PlayStation 3 with an extra controller and a game. Bids for pre-sales were going for close to $2,000 on eBay.
With PlayStation 3 and Sunday's release of Nintendo's newest console, the Wii, the battle among the next generation of video game systems -- and control of the so-called digital living room -- begins in earnest just at the start of the holiday shopping season.
The new PlayStation can download movies, music and other content, and it plays DVDs, CDs and Blu-ray movies, Sony's next-generation DVD format.
This month Microsoft countered with a $200 add-on to the Xbox 360 that plays its competing HD DVD format.
It's an expensive gamble for Sony -- production costs exceed the retail price by $241.35 and $306.85 for the more powerful and base models, respectively, according to an analysis by California market research firm iSuppli Corp. released yesterday. By contrast, Microsoft's year-old Xbox 360 sells for about $75 more than its production cost, iSuppli said.
Nintendo is following a different strategy, targeting families rather than hard-core gamers with a machine that's half the price of the entry-level PlayStation 3.
Its Wii (pronounced whee, as in having fun) uses a new movement-sensing control that enables players to mimic the motions they want. The player of a video tennis game, for instance, can hit the video tennis ball by physically swinging the arm holding the control.
When Nintendo began marketing Wii, it started with a commercial not on MTV but on the hit primetime television show Dancing with the Stars, pointed out Michael Gartenberg, a vice president and research director with Jupiter Research who follows personal technology and entertainment.
"The Wii is going for a low-cost, family-orientated market, essentially people who've never played games before, hence the innovative control and the low levels of entry, how you play the game," said Paul Jackson, a principal analyst who follows consumer video games for Forrester Research.
Nintendo would not reveal how many consoles it provided for the Sunday launch but said it planned to ship 6 million by the end of March.
But yesterday, it was the PlayStation 3 that was the object of desire.
Outside the Best Buy in Columbia, the sidewalk resembled a small tent city. Nearly a dozen green, tan and red tents, along with lawn chairs, stood on the ground. About 45 people had spent the night in their shelters.
Adrian Stamp, 29, of Columbia, set up his large green tent at 12:20 a.m. Wednesday and become the first person in line. This was not the first time he took time off from work to be the first one to buy the latest gaming console. He was at the same spot last year to snatch an Xbox 360.
"We're hard-core gamers," Stamp said as he pointed to familiar faces in the line.
At the Timonium Best Buy, graduate students Rob Zendel, 23, and Dan Bovill, 25, had a different motive -- profit. The two were willing to tough it out for two nights, rain or shine, to make a buck to help with school loans and books.
"It's going to be so worth it," Bovill said. "You know how much money I'm going to get?"
In New York City, the line at the Sony Style store in midtown Manhattan was closed at noon Wednesday because it was already 400 people long, the same number of consoles being sold at that store, said Dave Karraker, a Sony spokesman.
Customers waited outside with tents and air mattresses as Sony employees handed out hats, blankets, snacks and refreshments, Karraker said.
And other stores across the country were making plans to accommodate the eager gamers.
The Best Buy in Timonium planned to open two hours early today and Sunday for customers to buy their PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii. The plan there was to issue numbered tickets before the store opens, then bring customers inside five at a time to exchange their tickets for the chance to buy a console, said store manager Scott Tavegia.
At the Circuit City store in Rosedale, sales were limited to one unit per person. But the store planned to make the day more festive by putting up balloons and offering coffee and doughnuts to those who waited in line overnight, said Phil Resch, the store's technology sales manager. The store was scheduled to open at 8 a.m. today, but customers were to be let in one at a time starting at 7:30 to buy their PlayStation 3.
"We don't want people to be beat up over this," Resch said.
CompUSA was offering the chance to order a PlayStation 3 to anyone who bought a 40-inch or larger Sony television. Midnight events were planned for 24-hour Wal-Mart stores and some Circuit City stores, including one in Rockville. Wal-Mart planned to designate a waiting area in each store, issue numbered vouchers and limit sales to one per person, said spokeswoman Marisa Bluestone.
Several chains, including Toys "R" Us Inc. and GameStop Corp., which operates 4,400 GameStop, EB Games and Electronics Boutique stores, took pre-orders in October. Bob Friedland, a Toys "R" Us spokesman, said the chain's initial PlayStation 3 allotment would go to cover pre-orders.
With Wii, he said, there are enough to fill the orders and put consoles on sale in all Toys "R" Us stores Sunday -- including midnight openings in Times Square and other stores, such as Alexandria. Va.
Retailers are expecting additional units between the opening rush and the December holidays.
But Mike Prisby, 40, and his son, James, 17, didn't want to wait. Mike Prisby promised his son a PlayStation 3 for his birthday nearly two years ago. The pair were hoping to buy two PlayStations today: One as a belated birthday gift for James and the other to sell on eBay and share the profits.
Father and son camped out with a tent, sleeping bags and chairs outside the Best Buy in Timonium starting Wednesday afternoon. James said getting the PlayStation 3 would be "the greatest thing. I've been looking forward to this for years."
His father said the outing was also a chance to bond, as James might head off to the Air Force next year. But he could be spending less time with his son much sooner than that, he said.
"Who knows when I'll see him once he gets the game on," Mike Prisby said. "He may go into his room for a month."
Sun reporters M. William Salganik and Hanah Cho contributed to this article.