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James Logie

The Spectacular Rise & Fall of HQ Trivia

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James Logie
James Logie
 2021-05-09

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HQ Trivia was an app that took the world by storm just a few years ago. But where did it go?

You may have been a big fan, too, as upwards of 500,000 people would compete in some of the bigger competitions.

But what happened to this app that seemed to take the world by storm?

Buckle in H-cuties, this is a look back on the rapid rise and sudden failure of HQ Trivia.

What Was HQ Trivia?

If you missed out on this short-lived era, HQ Trivia was a community quiz app that put you into a contest with people from all over, in real-time.

Quizzes were twice a day, and various hosts would serve as your guides through the contests. It was a little like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Questions would start out simple and get progressively more difficult as people were eliminated. Each quiz would have 12 multiple-choice questions.

There were also big special weekend events with bigger prizes.

There was a timer on each question, so you were under the gun.

It seemed natural to run to Google to beat the system, but by the time you could type the question into the search bar, you had to answer.

If this was your approach, you would end up having to scramble and press any random answer to stay in the game.

I think this is what I did on the last question on that glorious night that I won…

This wasn’t just an app, but a place you could win actual money. On any given night, thousands of dollars were on the line, and some big giveaways awarded up to $400,000.

There would often be thousands of people sharing in on the prize, but on some occasions, there would only be a couple of people sharing the gigantic jackpot.

As the app got more popular, new hosts joined, and even some big-time celebrities. There would be a lot of cross-promotion — especially with movies.

The one weird thing was, this app was free. There also weren’t any annoying ads coming up all the time.

So how did they make any money while they were giving away a fortune? We’ll get to that soon.

The whole point of HQ Trivia was being tested on your knowledge of a wide range of topics, the real-time competition aspect to it, and the chance to win money.

How Did HQ Trivia Start?

We’ve got to go all the way back to the year 2017 — which somehow now seems like a decade ago.

Vine creators, Rus Yusupov, and Colin Kroll would develop HQ Trivia.

Their idea was to take elements of live TV, mobile gaming, and TV production and combine them into one app.

When HQ Trivia launched, it started out decent — but didn’t exactly set the world on fire. It would gradually gain more users.

But then some manufactured public infighting would lead to its rapid growth.

HQ Trivia host, Scott Rogowsky, was called out by one owner who was considering firing him.

This led to a lot of backlash and news reports that drew more attention to the app. HQ soon became the sixth most downloaded app in the App Store.

Everyone found out how fun this app was.

Problems With the App

If you ever played HQ Trivia, you know how infuriating it could be.

The live show would constantly glitch, and the audio would often completely drop.

Hosts would be left scrambling and have to improv while they waited for the glitches to be fixed.

Sometimes, they would just have to cancel the show and start it up later.

Despite all the technical glitches, many people stayed with it. And as more people joined, the app strained under all the demands.

They also had to give out larger cash prizes.

The jackpots grew bigger and bigger, and more and more people joined. It wasn’t uncommon for a single person to win $10,000 to $15,000 in one contest.

The largest one-time winner would be Jason Varney, who won $20, 833.33.

And then someone won $50,000 in one game. The popularity was getting pretty crazy and everyone wanted a shot at the growing jackpots.

How Did This App Make Money?

Well, it didn’t, really. HQ was first funded by investors and its parent company, Intermedia Labs.

This gave them enough money to run off for a while. Also, it was probably too late to charge people for an app they had already been using for free.

That rarely goes over very well.

The rapid growth of HQ Trivia would allow them to connect with other brands and companies.

Even if they weren’t deliberately running ads, they could sell the live air time to big businesses. This was a very attentive audience, so companies like Nike got on board.

Nike and GM would put hundreds of thousands of dollars to do a sponsored show.

Warner Bros. would do promotional tie-ins with their movies for $3 million.

One notable event featured The Rock promoting his movie Rampage (no, I never saw it either) and co-hosting the quiz with Scott Rogowsky.

I played that night and credit to Rogowsky, who was actually able to hang in there with the very charismatic and spontaneous Dwayne Johnson.

That night would attract 2.2 million users/viewers. Other sponsored nights such as a Disney-themed quiz would still regularly attract 800,000.

Jimmy Kimmel, Bert from Sesame Street, Neil Patrick Harris, and Robert De Niro also guest-hosted. (De Niro clearly had no idea what it was all about).

HQ Trivia quizzes would also coincide with major events such as the Oscars, Super Bowl, holidays, and sporting finals.

The night of the NBA finals, they held a quiz with a $400,000 prize.

How Could This Possibly Fail?

Going into 2018, HQ was on top of the world as you can see by some of these stats from businessofapps.com.

  • 12.8 million downloads as of August 2018.
  • Peak audience was 2.4 million.
  • Time’s App of the Year for 2017.
  • Was third in games, and sixth overall in the Apple App Store in 2018.
  • $10 million in ad sales.
  • Average quiz audience was 500,000 users.
  • Valued at $100 million after a $15 million Founders Fund investment in 2018.

These are stats and analytics that a lot of companies dare not dream of. But things started to go downhill.

By November 2018, HQ Trivia was ranked 253 in the U.S. app store. In just two months, downloads had dropped from two million a month to 560,000.

By June 2019, downloads had fallen by 92%. So how did this happen?

One big issue was the concern of bots used to cheat the system.

The glitches were still prominent, leaving many users frustrated, and entire games would just crash.

There were also issues with being able to cash out winnings. And, at the same time, there were also a ton of new trivia rivals popping up.

Then there were the other big issues regarding reputation. Kroll was accused of inappropriate behavior and many were not happy that it was Peter Thiel who made the investment through Founders Firm.

Kroll then tragically passed away.

HQ Trivia tried to overhaul everything with new shows, quizzes, and hosts. But nothing caught on.

With the massive decrease in downloads, many staff had to be let go. But they kept trying with different trivia-style spinoffs.

They experimented with music listening quizzes, photo assignment games, and even a home shopping channel-style show.

It was too little, too late. They pushed paid subscriptions and in-app purchases on their other formats, and quizzes no longer offered cash prizes.

People just weren’t interested in tuning in anymore.

By February 2020, it was all over.

Final Thoughts

HQ Trivia seemed to be a victim of its own success. The bigger it got, the further it strayed from its original platform.

Once viewership declined, sponsors were no longer interested.

The lesson seems to be in the dangers of peaking too soon. HQ Trivia could never recapture the height they once hit — and they kept trying to recreate the original viral spike.

The story of HQ Trivia is still pretty remarkable. They tried something new and found tremendous success.

They showed the potential that apps can have with a live format. To me, what made it successful was the sense of community and a shared, real-time experience.

HQ Trivia was definitely a good ride while it lasted. And it ended up being resurrected in March 2020 for diehard fans to keep playing.