When Scott Rogowsky auditioned to host the unreleased online quiz show HQ Trivia in 2017, after a decade of grinding gigs on the New York comedy scene, he didn’t think it would be his ticket to instant fame.
But soon after landing the job, the “game show on your phone” app — from the founders of the once-popular six-second video platform Vine — became an overnight national sensation. At its peak, millions of users, including celebrities, would open the app simultaneously to answer a series of trivia questions for cash prizes. It combined the best elements of mobile gaming, live video and TV production and brought them together in an experience that people could participate in at home, at the bar or anywhere, in real time.
“We went from zero ratings to $100 million in six months,” Rogowsky told CNN in his new film “Glitch: The Rise & Fall of HQ Trivia.” “We had a Super Bowl commercial, billboards in Times Square. [I] you can’t walk down the street without taking a selfie.”
But the company collapsed almost as quickly. Its success was eventually destroyed by corporate infighting, executive changes and the death of one of its co-founders, Colin Kroll. However, three years after the company’s closure, the game’s legacy lives on, and other companies are trying to get large audiences to instantly tune in to the same thing in a disrupted digital environment. But like HQ Trivia, these efforts rarely last.
Twice a day, the world stopped for 30 minutes as players watched one or more people win the big bucks instantly on HQ Trivia – and viewers had a chance to cash in, too. The winning players divided the set among themselves. Sometimes the prizes were high ($250,000); other times it was only $11.
With his charismatic, quirky charm, Rogowsky has emerged as the internet’s beloved “quiz dad” and has a front-row seat to the hottest new things in technology. As of March 2018, the app has attracted more than 2.3 million users for each trivia task.
Behind the scenes, however, tensions rose between Rogowsky and HQ Trivia co-founder Rus Yusupov, who was reportedly jealous of Rogowsky becoming the face of the company. Allegedly, Yusupov and Kroll also clashed over different ideas. At the same time, Kroll’s alleged past aggressive behavior at Vine hindered investor participation.
There were also technical problems. As the app continued to grow in popularity, it became increasingly buggy and regularly crashed for users. Some players claimed they never received their payouts, others were getting bored. Daily use began to fall.
Rogowsky left in March 2019 to pursue other opportunities, nearly three months after Kroll was found dead in his New York apartment. Rogowsky now owns a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles.
The app was officially shut down in February 2020, when players received a mysterious notification on their phones: “HQ is live. Just kidding. We’re shutting down the show indefinitely.”
How an angry phone call went viral
Over the years, other tech companies have launched similar services to capture the magic of HQ Trivia, with mixed success.
Facebook launched a game show platform in 2018, which was canceled in the US the following year. Recently, TikTok launched a multi-day quiz show featuring several trivia and a live host with cash prizes. The company also encouraged businesses to use it to “connect with their community.”
Wordle, a word game in which users must try to guess a five-letter word six times a day, achieved online virality similar to HQ Trivia last year as the service made it easy to post on social media how many tries it took to get the answer.
In an interview last year, Wordle’s creator said part of the app’s power is its ability to create “a shared experience,” especially during the pandemic, when friends and family have been kept apart. However, unlike HQ Trivia, Wordle does not require its users to share this experience at the exact same moment of the day.
BeReal may arguably be HQ Trivia’s most enduring legacy, despite not being a trivia game. The popular social app is trying to get all of its users to stop what they’re doing and take a selfie at a certain time of the day. The goal is different — to create authenticity — but like HQ Trivia, it forces users to be in the moment. But users are said to be decreasing even at BeReal.
“Other than live sports or the Oscars, there are very few live events where people interact,” Mike Miley, author of “Truth and Coincidence: Game Shows in Truth and Fiction,” said of HQ Trivia’s legacy in a CNN documentary. “[Game shows] they strive to find their own unique twists on that formula and capture people’s imaginations, and HQ has been able to scratch that itch in a unique way that hasn’t been seen before.”
For a deeper look at the meteoric rise and sudden collapse of the once-ubiquitous mobile game show, CNN’s “Glitch: The Rise & Fall of HQ Trivia” premieres Sunday, March 5 at 9pm PT.