Diablo 4’s marketing campaign is somehow even more unhinged than mobile ads
On June 6, the sky turned orange. Smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south, casting a dull orange hue over the northeastern states of the United States. New York City looked otherworldly and post-apocalyptic, its inhabitants sucking in dangerous air. The orange-hued smoke blurred skyscrapers and towers, leaving only the flashing screens of Times Square eerily illuminating the city’s streets.
As one billboard put it bluntly, “Welcome to Hell, New York.”
It is an ad that is both topical and coincidental. Activision Blizzard Diablo 4 was officially released the day before. Lilith, the size of a small building, looms over the people of New York, their eyes burning with smoke. Someone joked on Twitter: Diablo 4‘s marketing team has gone too far.
Of course, Activision Blizzard didn’t set fire to Canada’s forest to produce massive amounts of smoke sent south by the wind. But the apocalyptic weather seemed to highlight the sheer weirdness and brutality of Activision Blizzard’s large, scattered marketing campaign, which stands out even as video game marketing stunts have become increasingly daring.
The one thread that seems to tie this campaign together is virality and shock value – the kind of marketing you see more often in the world of mobile games. Of course, that’s not to say this kind of marketing is unheard of in console and PC gaming, but it’s ubiquitous in the mobile space: dramatic storylines that have little impact on actual gameplay (sometimes with celebrity approval), mass-market ads that show of gameplay that isn’t actually in the game, and marketing calculated to go viral. Diablo 4′s marketing embodies the ethos of mobile game advertising, whether intended or not.
Activision Blizzard hit pretty much every kind of marketing activity we’ve seen for video games – and then some – in an effort to “join the conversation in places where you wouldn’t normally see a video game or Diablo,” according to Diablo 4 general manager Rod Fergusson.
Celebrity recommendations? Check, with both Megan Fox and Chloë Grace Moretz in ads. Fox appeared in a series of highly calculated tweets and videos mocking people who are bad at it Diablo 4, and also calling out some big streamers. Moretz appeared in a video to a Diablo 4 character too. These features are not that unusual when you think about Fox’s work and aesthetic – Jennifer’s body, everyone? (Fox’s ad campaign isn’t loved by everyone, though, some suggest it is game marketing back a few decades. To others, Fox is mommy, and fits the role perfectly.) Meanwhile, Moretz has her side mentioned in interviews that she likes video games.
Celebrity marketing is nothing new either, but recent mobile game ads seem to have ushered in an era of big names or unexpected celebrity cameos. Pedro Pascal, right after the success of The last of usappeared in advertisements for Merge mansion, an unhinged mobile game. In 2022, mobile game Royal Match ran an ad featuring Rick Hoffman (To take) that seemed to come from Cameo, an app that allows fans to pay celebrities to say a certain line. But it is also increasingly a trend for major titles: League of Legends made Lil Nas X become Riot Games’ “new CEO” in an ad before unveiling a new anthem. Diablo 4 also have an anthem; Halsey sings it.
Activision Blizzard also threw a launch party at a Los Angeles church; author And game expert Danny Peña told Polygon that the party ended with Lilith flying out of the ceiling, skin cape and all, before Zedd showed up at DJ’s. “That’s when you know a company has a big budget,” said Peña. “Hollywood is really getting involved and getting into the gaming industry.” It may be about expanding the Diablo franchise to new people, he said. This publicity stunt again reflects the type of campaign Merge mansion recently drawn. In March, the developers invited influencers for a themed real-life scavenger hunt at the Paramour Estate in Los Angeles.
But it didn’t stop there. Questionable food product? Understood. Fast food activation? Yup. Activision Blizzard hired marketing company B-Reel to create and distribute vegan smoothies that looked like mixed meats. It also teamed up with KFC to give away Diablo 4 eyes and signed with Burger King to reward players who can knock back five spicy double cheeseburgers. It even has a hot sauce on it First We Feasts hot. Several of these activations feel more like a challenge or a threat, but make sense: Lilith is literally wearing a skin cape, so the innards of a flesh shake isn’t too surprising. We’ve come to expect food campaigns as a marketing strategy for video games and much more—McDonald’s is known for it, with its tethered toys—but those campaigns tend to be slightly more appetizing or cuter.
Fergusson told Polygon that these kinds of food collaborations are popular on TikTok — though Polygon noted that the TikToks about the meat shake mostly seemed to come from small accounts, or were paid partnerships that didn’t really take off. It was logical for KFC to participate as a company has its own gaming arm, Diablo 4‘s marketing VP Kaleb Ruel.
The company behind the coarse drink is fully committed to the bit. When asked about the recipe, B-Reel joked that the flesh of demons was mixed in a cup. “We landed on a drink with a creepy brain as the base, topped with some sweet, delicious, red, black, and white demon juice, topped with a layer of smoky, clear skin to keep everything in place,” B-Reel creative team Zack McDonald , Afshin Moeini and Christian Poppius told Polygon via email. They gave no real recipe and proved as impenetrable as the gates of hell.
And then there are the seemingly unrelated and duly unhinged brand partnerships. Then there is the satanic chocolate shop. What about a huge mural taped to the ceiling of a cathedral? A funny choice for a game that plays on satanic panic, and funny after Activision Blizzard had already gone down the more traditional path of putting up big billboards in New York City. A trailer directed by an award-winning filmmaker? eternals’ Chloe Zhao is on board.
The more glaring question is: what not Activision Blizzard do? It is likely that the company spent millions of dollars building these campaigns. (Blizzard declined the marketing budget for Diablo 4, but said it was “in line with the aspirations for the game.”) It’s hard to imagine how this all fits together, or who would actually want to drink a “meat” shake (or is it food? ). But it seems that’s not the most important part of a campaign. Rather, the point of the campaign may be its sheer reach, according to marketing professionals Polygon spoke with.
“The launch marketing is definitely a case of ‘more is more’ as now that the game has proven to be a worthy addition to the 26 year old franchise, they have the opportunity to really go big and reach a much wider audience, many of whom may have never played a Diablo game or even this type of RPG dungeon crawler,” Phillip Driver, CEO of The Game Marketer, told Polygon via email. “Blizzard needed this to be too big to fail, and only by getting huge momentum in the market can that happen.”
Activision Blizzard competes not only with other video games, but also with YouTube, TikTok, movies and television, Trevor Dudeck, CEO of Lemonade the Agency, told Polygon. “We live in the attention economy,” Dudeck said. “Every brand is at war for the same 24 hours and it’s only getting harder to get through.”
Growing that big, according to Dudeck, is simply an attempt to reach as many people as possible. “It takes a willingness to put a lot of jumble together and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do 20 things,'” Dudeck said. “10 of them may not be related to the others. Five of them could fall flat. But the five or six that might catch on will do very well. Many brands are not willing to take that risk.”
It also makes sense to tap into the sense of shock value inherent in the series. Diablo 4 goes to places that are somehow darker than before; there are no good vibes here, just shock and awe. And in any case, all ads are directly related to the video game and its themes, compared to mobile game ads, which are often show minimal resemblance to their source material.
It seems to have worked – as fans make fun of the masses Diablo 4 billboard shrouded in the smoky orange sky is indicative. And Activision Blizzard – in another calculated marketing move – issued a press release sharing that Diablo 4 sold $666 million worldwide in the game’s first five days, making it the “highest-selling opening in Blizzard history”.