Activision has booked some heavy-hitting talent for the the ninth edition of the "Call of Duty" franchise, "Black Ops 2," which it's kept closely under wraps. The live-action trailer created out of 72andSunny and released today features Robert Downey Jr. in his first-ever North American TV ad and French movie star Omar Sy. It's directed by Guy Ritchie (Mr. Downey's director in the "Sherlock Holmes" films) and will debut tonight on TV during "Monday Night Football" on ESPN.
Last year's release crossed the $1 billion sales threshold in 16 days, so expectations are high. Video-game marketing typically relies on carefully orchestrated releases to fire up franchise loyalists, which is why the mid-year leak of details about "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" in 2011 was a PR crisis for the company, but one that it managed to turn into an opportunity to connect with fans, Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg has said.
But this year, the theme of the marketing has been "surprise," according to Chief Marketing Officer Tim Ellis, now culminating with Mr. Downey's appearance in the TV spot. It began with the tapping of weapons blogger FPSRussia -- known for blowing things up on his site -- to post a video of himself reviewing a prototype of a futuristic weapon that he said wouldn't be available for another decade "but might just be in the next 'Call of Duty' game" in late April. It served to tip off fans to the near-future 2025 setting of "Black Ops 2," "a big surprise and a major piece of news for the community," Mr. Ellis said, and to tee up the game-play trailer, which first aired during the NBA playoffs and now has almost 27 million YouTube views.
Though its sales figures in recent years have been staggering, "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" faces competition this fall from Microsoft's sci-fi-themed "Halo 4," another first-person shooter game that's being released the previous week. ("Halo 4" also has a live-action spot with Hollywood bona fides; its ad was produced by "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" director David Fincher.) But Mr. Ellis said he subscribes to a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships philosophy, and it's ultimately good for Activision if competitors fare well.
"We think a healthy video-game industry is important for us because we're the leader," he said. "We want people interested in games."
Mr. Ellis characterized Activision's upcoming TV media mix as containing "a healthy dose of sports, both programming and analysis," and a lot of late night. Prominent outdoor campaigns are planned in New York, London and Los Angeles as a "stature play" to emphasize the "cultural prowess of the franchise," he said, and there will also be significant spending on digital.
While the sports-oriented emphasis of the mix isn't surprising for a video-game marketer, Mr. Ellis said women are a growing audience for the "Call of Duty" game. For that reason, it's no accident that online comedienne iJustine also appears in the live-action spot, brandishing a deadly weapon.
"We by no means soften our communication in order to appeal [to women]. If anything, just the opposite," Mr. Ellis said. "If you look at the females represented in our spot, they come across as tough and cool like any of the guys."
Mr. Ellis declined to comment on the marketing spend for "Black Ops 2." According to regulatory filings, Activision Blizzard's global advertising outlays were $343 million, $332 million and $366 million for 2011, 2010 and 2009 respectively.