HQ Trivia quickly imploded, but the legacy lives on

(CNN) When Scott Rogowsky auditioned to host an unreleased web quiz show called HQ Trivia back in 2017, after a decade of gigging gigs in the New York City comedy scene, he didn’t think it would be his ticket to instant fame.

Not long after landing the job, however, 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 simultaneously open the app to answer a series of trivia questions for cash prizes. It blended the best elements of mobile gaming, live video and TV production and put them together into an experience people could participate in at home, from the bar or anywhere in real time.

“We went from a valuation of nothing 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] couldn’t walk down the street without getting mobbed for selfies.”

But the company imploded almost as quickly. The success was ultimately undone by corporate clashes, changes in management and the death of one of the co-founders, Colin Kroll. Three years after the company shut down, however, the game’s legacy lives on with other companies trying to get large audiences in a fragmented digital environment to tune in to the same thing at once. But like HQ Trivia, these efforts rarely seem to last.

The Short Life of HQ Trivia

Twice a day, for 30 minutes, the world stopped as players watched one or more people receive what could be a significant amount of money instantly on HQ Trivia—and viewers had their own chance, too. Players who won split the pool between them. Sometimes the winnings were high ($250,000); other times it was only $11.

Rogowsky, with his charismatic, quirky charm, emerged as the internet’s beloved “Quiz Daddy” and had a front-row seat to the hottest new thing in technology. As of March 2018, the app attracted more than 2.3 million users for each trivia session.

Behind the scenes, however, tensions rose between Rogowsky and HQ Trivia’s co-founder Rus Yusupov, who was reportedly jealous that Rogowsky would become the company’s public face. Yusupov and Kroll were also said to clash over different visions. At the same time, Kroll’s alleged past aggressive behavior while on Vine was said to prevent some investor engagement.

There were also technical problems. As the app continued to grow in popularity, it became increasingly glitchy, routinely crashing for users. Some players claimed they never received their payouts, others grew 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 City apartment. Rogowsky now owns a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles.

The app was officially shut down in February 2020 when players received a cryptic message sent to their phones: “HQ is live. Just kidding. We’re off the air indefinitely.”

The mixed legacy of HQ Trivia

Over the years, other tech companies have launched similar services in apparent attempts to capture some of the magic that HQ Trivia did, with mixed success.

Facebook launched a game show platform in 2018 that was canceled in the US the following year. More recently, TikTok launched a multi-day quiz show that featured multiple rounds of trivia and a live host with cash prizes. The company encouraged businesses to also use it as a way “to engage with their communities.”

Wordle, a word game where users have six attempts to guess one five-letter word each day, achieved online virality similar to HQ Trivia last year when the service made it easy to post on social media how many tries it took them to get an 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 were kept apart. Unlike HQ Trivia, however, Wordle doesn’t require users to share that experience at the exact same time of day.

BeReal may arguably be HQ Trivia’s most lasting legacy, despite not being a trivia game. The popular social app tries to get all its users to stop whatever 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 asks users to be in the moment. But even BeReal is reportedly seeing a decline in users.

“Other than live sports or the Academy Awards, there are very few live events around which people communicate,” Mike Miley, author of “Truth and Coincidences: Game shows in truth and fiction,” said of HQ Trivia’s legacy in the CNN documentary. “[Game shows] are looking to find their own unique twists on that formula and capture people’s imaginations, and HQ was able to scratch that itch in a unique way that hadn’t happened before.”

For a deeper look into the rocket-like rise and sudden implosion of the once-ubiquitous mobile game show, the CNN film “Glitch: The Rise & Fall of HQ Trivia” premieres Sunday, March 5 at 21.00 PT.

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