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Midway Puts More Muscle Behind Its Videogames

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After suffering staggering sales losses last year, videogame publisher Midway is counting on a new marketing team, increased ad spending and a line of M-rated games to reverse its fortunes.

The veteran publisher, which is best known for its Mortal Kombat franchise, will double its ad budget this year to better compete with category leaders such as Electronic Arts. In the company's first big volley, the Ayzenberg Group, an independent shop in Pasadena, Calif., will break a $7 million campaign next week to tout the new title NBA Ballers.

The Chicago-based game maker spent about $10 million on media for its entire portfolio last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. "The first thing me and Steve said when we came over was that we needed more money," said vp of marketing Mona Hamilton, a five-year Ubi Soft veteran.

Hamilton and former Atari vp of marketing Steve Allison, now chief marketing officer, joined last fall. At the same time, Greg Mucha, director of channel marketing, came on board from V-Tech Electronics, and the whole marketing department moved from Milpitas, Calif., to Chicago. The department reports to Midway's new president and CEO, David Zucker, who arrived from ESPN.

TV commercials will launch March 31 in conjunction with an MTV special on the making of NBA Ballers. Shipping April 5, NBA Ballers is a one-on-one game that highlights the lifestyles of NBA stars. Players can choose jewelry, cars and cribs based on their success. The ads' tagline: "Live the fantasy lifestyle of an NBA superstar."

The five-week campaign features a fictional basketball player named Darnell Walker, who demonstrates the game's "rags to riches" theme by starting out on the street and ending up in a mansion. The cover talent is New York Knicks player Stephon Marbury. Spots will run on MTV, Fox Sports, BET, ESPN and other channels.

Ayzenberg has handled Midway's creative for three years. Following its NBA Ballers campaign, the agency will break TV commercials in June for Midway's MLB SlugFest: Loaded, which features Cubs player Sammy Sosa on the game cover.

Midway is trying to get closer to EA, which spent about $50 million last year on its titles and has said it plans to increase its budget this year. "We have a new vision and new focus," said Hamilton. "We have a stronger focus on quality games. This will be the turnaround year, the year of Midway."

Part of Midway's strategy is to carve out a niche with Mature-rated titles. Earlier this month it launched M-rated game The Suffering, and Midway will fire up its flagship franchise, Mortal Kombat, in the fourth quarter with a campaign touting the online capabilities of MK: Deception. MK has sold 22 million games, generating $1.5 billion since 1992.

Last year, Midway's revenue fell from $192 million to approximately $93 million. The company had a particularly miserable fourth quarter, when it was down $80 million compared with the year prior, according to Midway. Meanwhile, EA recorded $2.5 billion in sales last year, growing nearly 44 percent.