The untold truth of HQ Trivia

Back in the day, snagging an appearance on popular game shows like Jeopardy or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? meant jumping through a lot of hoops, flying across the country with a few family members, and trading jokes with the host. These days, that whole picture has changed thanks to a little app called HQ Trivia, which allows anyone sitting at home to participate in a live game show by correctly answering twelve crazy questions from their phone.

HQ Trivia rode the mobile wave to fame in late 2017, lighting up the internet with swarms of excited participants. As time goes on, though, it's been forced to weather some shady controversies in the midst of common accusations that the whole thing is creepily similar to a real life episode of Black Mirror. Love it or hate it, here's the scoop on the little app that's forever changing the game show market: the untold truth of HQ Trivia.

Brought to you from the creators of Vine

Anyone who has experienced the slick, shiny, and addictive HQ Trivia knows that it's clearly the product of experienced developers who knew what they're doing. Those creators are Rus Yusopov and Colin Kroll, pictured above — otherwise known as the duo who launched Vine (alongside Dom Hofmann) in 2013. Vine, as you might remember, was the service that encouraged everyone to make bizarro six-second video clips, including some rather unforgettable posts from major celebrities. It was a big deal… until it got crowded out by its more popular corporate sibling, SnapChat, and was shut down by the higher-ups at Twitter.

Anyway, having tasted sweet success — only to not quite make it to super-stardom — Yusopov and Croll buckled down, developed a live video game show app, snagged a couple million dollars of funding, and launched HQ Trivia in August of 2017. By the end of the year, HQ Trivia was prime water cooler conversation, surpassing Vine's cultural influence by leaps and bounds. So while HQ Trivia isn't Yusopov and Kroll's first rodeo, it'll probably be the one that defines their legacy, for better or worse.

Is this thing a scam or a real game show?

Well… it's a little of both, according to Vox. The first thing to understand about HQ Trivia is that even though it feels like something from The Hunger Games, it's a genuine game show. Millions of real people have competed, and those real people have won real money. There's no harm in trying it out, and you might even walk away with a couple bucks. Sounds great, right?

However, as with many TV game shows of the past, a few details of the whole shebang have raised eyebrows. Namely, some of the rules are a bit fishy. For example, most players only win pocket change, which wouldn't be a big deal — except that until recently, the app didn't allow you to cash out your winnings until they reached $20, thus necessitating that you had to play a lot of games just to take the money home. Even more annoyingly, the terms of service stated that players only had 90 days to claim their prize money or it'd be confiscated. Basically, this meant that whole system worked to get you desperately addicted to HQ Trivia, lest you lose your winnings. 

Not surprisingly, critics slammed hard against this part of the game, so the $20 rule has since been changed. However, the question of where these funds come from has dogged the developers since day one, and inquiring minds have asked how the app is even turning a profit in the first place.

Yes, some players have won some serious dough

Sliding over to the positive end of the scale, it's worth noting that while most HQ Trivia players just make chump change, it is entirely possible for devoted fans to end their day with a golden ticket in their bank account. Don't believe it? Well, just ask Casey Donahue, the young independent filmmaker who took home a dazzling $6,000 on Christmas Eve of 2017Donahue was one of two big winners that night, with another $6,000 being awarded to 26-year-old Jaimie Ortiz.

Donahue and Ortiz aren't the only big winners in HQ Trivia history. According to Mashable, a radio DJ named AllanG — or Alan Gibbons, as he's called in real life — made such a name for himself with regular big winnings that other users started questioning if he was a bot. As it happens, he is a human being, and he has no microchip in his brain. However, his winning method of playing the game twice a day, every day, might technically classify him as more of a cyborg. 

Who's that Scott Rogowsky guy?

HQ Trivia is hosted by the Quiz Daddy himself, Scott Rogowsky, a New York City guy who first earned digital fame when he posted a video of himself on the subway reading fake books with inappropriate and/or bizarre titles such as Human Taxidermy: A Beginner's Guide and How to Hold a Fart In. The video became a viral sensation, and he channeled his internet celebrity into the comedy series Running Late With Scott Rogowsky. Before that, he earned his comedy chops by working the stand-up circuit. For what it's worth, he's not actually the biggest trivia buff out there, but as he puts it,"I don't know all the answers, but I have all the answers, and isn't that what's important?" Can't argue with that.

Rogowsky has become the face of HQ Trivia, and a large part of what makes the app so popular is the Quiz Daddy's upbeat enthusiasm for the game, as well as the new opportunities the app has afforded him — and especially for his fans, a group he's dubbed HQties. "My hopes and dreams are that it stays the first mover," he told AdAge. "That it maintains that momentum and it expands in terms of reach. Why can't we be the Facebook of live mobile trivia instead of the Friendster?"

Some major celebrities have guest hosted

Nobody beats Scott Rogowsky — hey, that's why he's the Quiz Daddy — but a handful of celebrities have given it their best shot, or at least shared space with him. For example, champion Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi took a turn on the small (smartphone) screen, with Rogowsky enthusiastically singing her praises. Another popular guest was American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, whom Rogowsky referred to as the "Ry-Guy." Comedian Jimmy Kimmel hosted HQ Trivia in early 2018, with Heavy noting that he kept the pace clipping along at a mile a minute, an approach which had both its fans and its detractors. Even fictional characters like Bert from Sesame Street have given it a go. Could hosting gigs for Bert's pals Ernie, Elmo, and Big Bird be next?  

In the end, though, Rogowsky is still everybody's favorite HQ Trivia host, which says a lot about how beloved he's become in such a short period of time.

The people running the show haven't always had the best rep

Everybody loves HQ Trivia, and everybody loves Scott Rogowsky. You know what people aren't so crazy about, though? The seemingly strange — and hostile — behavior of the of the app's creators, the aforementioned Rus Yusopov and Colin Kroll. As Vox explains, when both men worked for Twitter, neither fared well. Yusopov was laid off in 2015, and while Kroll became a manager, he was reportedly criticized for having an "abusive" managerial style. Even worse, he developed a bad reputation for being "creepy" around women, to the point where investors have allegedly been wary of funding HQ Trivia.

More recently, Yusopov totally flipped out when the ever-popular Scott Rogowsky agreed to a silly, light-hearted interview with the Daily Beast. That's no exaggeration: Yusopov publicly threatened to fire Rogowsky just for participating in the interview, and warned the Daily Beast not to print it. For what it's worth, Business Insider reports that Yusopov followed up on this PR gaffe by tweeting a photo of himself alongside his star performer eating salad together, along with the caption, "Q: Who's a cliche, stressed out startup founder? A: me. @ScottRogowsky @TaylorLorenz sorry for being a jerk."

Sorry about those technical glitches…

It goes without saying that the science fiction nature of HQ Trivia is unlike anything that's ever come before, so the app might deserve a little leeway when it comes to technical glitches. After all, plugging millions of people into the same live game show simultaneously, with time limits and money on the table, sounds like a challenge for any server to handle. Nonetheless, HQ Trivia's infamous glitchiness has become something of an inside joke amongst both fans and detractors, particularly as the game gets increasingly popular, resulting in even more traffic.

In January, 2018, the New York Times reported on HQ Trivia's extreme lagginess and server problems, stating, "Players are regularly booted from the game without explanation. The live host's face is frequently obscured by the wheel of death. Sometimes, the whole game is scrapped for mysterious technical reasons…" which, yeah, doesn't sound like a fun experience. Hopefully the developers will work out the bugs soon, before people get fed up enough to dig out their old You Don't Know Jack CD-ROMs.

What was that whole #DeleteHQ hashtag about?

Less than a year after HQ Trivia took off like a rocket, it was hit by a major PR asteroid. In February 2018, the hashtag #DeleteHQ erupted on Twitter. People weren't boycotting the app over lagtimes or hard questions. No, the rebellion launched only when news broke that the app might be getting funding from a certain billionaire named Peter Thiel.

Why is Peter Thiel so disliked that people are willing to ditch HQ Trivia over him? As outlined by the Atlantic, Thiel spearheaded a lawsuit against Gawker that put the news site out of business, forever labeling him as an enemy of the free press. He also earned criticism for his donations to the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, not to mention his unusual plan to live forever by harvesting the blood of the young, an experimental procedure called parabiosis. So if you've ever heard him referred to as a "vampire," now you know why. Anyway, New York Magazine points out that regardless of what one thinks about Thiel, deleting HQ Trivia wouldn't be enough to put a dent in him, since he also earns money from Facebook, Lyft, Airbnb, and Spotify, meaning any genuine boycott would be a lot more complicated.   

HQ Trivia has exploded with both major criticism and acclaim

If you want to make it into the major leagues, you've gotta earn some bruises on the way. Just as with any app or social network that has gained mainstream media attention, the spotlight on HQ Trivia has grown harsher over time, with the Atlantic at one point calling it a "Harbinger of Dystopia," even drawing comparisons to the haunting "15 Million Merits" episode of Black Mirror — you know, the one with the stationary bikes. It's too early to say if the app will break through the negative commentary and suspicion it has engendered, but at the same time, it has also earned some lofty achievements that are worth writing home about. Time Magazine named it the #1 App of 2017, and it won the A-Train award for "Best Mobile Game" at the 2018 New York Game Awards.

There's no doubt that HQ Trivia is a big deal, but it's still in its early days. Only time will tell what kind of staying power the app has — and as the makers of countless online games can attest, figuring out how to get people to stick around for the long haul is tougher than any tricky trivia question.

No, Barack Obama didn't win HQ Trivia (as far as we know)

Before we cross the finish line, let's clear up one popular misconception that set the internet ablaze in January 2018. As Newsweek explains, the Jan. 17 game resulted in 91 winners, but one particular user name caught the eyes of everyone participating: a player named "Obama," with an avatar featuring a certain former U.S. President, took home $21.98. Not surprisingly, users across the web went crazy with excitement, and countless news headlines questioned whether the "Obama" player was the real deal.

Well, sorry to burst the bubble, but it wasn't him. When news sites reached out to the real Obama for comment, his spokesperson Katie Hill responded by pointing out that the game occurred on Michelle Obama's birthday, and that the former first couple had actually spent the night having a romantic dinner, followed by a play. However, Hill did stipulate that "President Obama is as competitive a trivia player as anybody," so she didn't entirely rule out the possibility that the real Obama has, perhaps, thrown down for a couple rounds of HQ Trivia on occasion. So basically, while "Obama" wasn't Obama, the real guy might be out there somewhere, with a different user name. Until we know for sure, keep your eyes peeled.