How an HQ Trivia Documentary Started a ‘Drama Vortex’ Online
Three months. That’s how long it took for HQ Trivia to go from unknown mobile game to household name with a record 2.38 million users at once. Now, six years later, a new documentary, Glitch: The Rise And Fall Of HQ Trivia, aims to tell the scandalous behind-the-scenes story of HQ Trivia’s journey from a zeitgeisty app to a corporate disaster. But days after the first trailer was posted, the documentary was embroiled in its own scandal online: a mishmash of accusations, callouts, and digs that director Salima Koroma exclusively tells Rolling Stone has turned into a “drama vortex.” And behind the online spectacle is a question industries continue to wrestle with—who gets to tell a story?
The Tinder Swindler. Zola. The Dropout. Inventing Anna. Fyre Fest (both of them). We’re in a golden age of entertainment taken directly from our social media timelines. The competing streaming services have created a race to document the most viral moments before the internet forgets them. Documentaries are often the perfect way for key players to regain control of their stories or share their own personal experiences behind the headlines. But in our extremely online age, the same news, chaos, and drama that makes the perfect fodder for a documentary can infiltrate the work itself, making a film the center of discourse — sometimes, long before anyone has ever seen it.
Glitch is one such doc. Premiering March 5, it gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the trivia app HQ, all the way from its 2017 launch to its 2020 demise. The app was founded by Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, who had both helped launch the wildly popular video app Vine. Following Vine’s shutdown in 2016, Kroll and Yusupov worked together on several unsuccessful projects that tried to merge streaming, social media, and mobile gaming — that is, until HQ Trivia.
The format was basic: At least twice a day, viewers tuned into a live trivia game, which offered increasingly difficult questions at a rapid clip, told amidst witty rejoinders (and some truly awful puns). While Scott Rogowsky was considered the face of the app, shows were hosted by a variety of comedians. Fans tuned in to compete (and chat) with users all over the world for the chance to win a cash prize. And in what seemed like chance success, the company became a pop culture fixture, drawing in almost 3 million viewers at a time. But a lack of cohesion led to major public explosions: Yusupov
To the documentary’s director, Salima Koroma, the company behind HQ Trivia was a “shitshow.” While she never played the app when it was popular, the Emmy-award-winning director tells Rolling Stone that she was drawn into the project after several former HQ employees pitched the doc to CNN Films. Former HQ execs Dylan Abruscato and Brandon Teitel serve as executive producers. The founders are not interviewed in it but former HQ Trivia hosts, coders, and staff give their accounts of what was happening off-camera while the app reached its biggest milestones.
“As I was putting the pieces together, I realized that the story that I wanted to tell is of these two CEOs and how their crumbling relationship led to this massive implosion of the company,” Koroma says. “HQ feels like it was a fever dream. Joe Biden, before he was president, once told Scott Rogowsky [that Scott] was more popular than him. So it’s the hype and excitement of founders becoming rockstars and then a big, quick failure.”
Sarah Pribis, a former HQ Trivia host, worked on the app starting at its beta stage and all the way through its first game with one million users. She remembers low pay and harassment from fans during live shows that went unchecked despite the presence of moderators. So when she saw the news that Glitch was in production, she tells Rolling Stone she hoped that the documentary would finally be a chance to talk about the “toxic” culture she says she experienced there. Instead, the trailer for Glitch dropped — and Rogowsky posted a clip from it on his TikTok account, saying “I asked thousands of questions hosting HQ Trivia, but there’s one question people have asked me over the past few years: “What happened?” Here’s your answer.” What Pribis saw in the clip made her feel like her narrative (and others) had been left out.
On Feb. 5, Pribis, who has not yet seen the film, posted a TikTok claiming that the producers of the documentary never reached out to her to ask “a single question.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, she said she was only contacted for fact-checking purposes and was told filming was complete. “I wonder whose narrative they’re telling and what pieces they’re choosing to leave out,” she said in a video that has since been viewed 1.5 million times. Since she posted her initial complaint, Rogowsky’s comment section has been swarmed with comments asking why Pribis was left out.
Koroma, however, says Pribis’ was brought in for a pre-interview during filming — it’s just that her story didn’t make it into the final product. “We reached out to all of the hosts,” Koroma says. “[Sarah] helped back up some of the things that former HQ employees were already saying, and I’m actually really thankful about her willingness to talk with us at that time. You’re trying to tell a story that fits all the puzzle pieces. Why wasn’t Sarah in the film? I felt like we had what we needed.”
Pribis says the entire experience prompted her to create a “TikTokumentary”— all to tell her version of events and the “toxicity” behind the camera.
“Unfortunately this seems like a case of their word versus mine, which is why I am grateful that TikTok exists for my point of view to be told,” Pribis added in a statement to Rolling Stone.
Another criticism of the project to emerge from the trailer’s release was a question of credit. Tech reporter Alyssa Bereznak was fully aware of Glitch’s existence — she and Koroma had a phone call early in the production process. But since she was never invited to be part of the documentary, Bereznak tells Rolling Stone she was hesitant to speak about it publicly. That changed the day the trailer dropped when she began to receive text after text: “Congrats!” “Are you involved in this?” “What the fuck?”
Bereznak, a staff writer at The Ringer, researched, reported, and hosted the podcast Boom/Bust: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia in 2020 — an eight-part series that chronicled the app’s success and eventual nosedive into oblivion. On Feb. 10, Bereznak made a long Twitter thread, taking issue with how similar the two projects were named and her exclusion as a named source or participant. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bereznak says the trailer flagged a ton of narrative similarities between the documentary and her podcast, something she thinks she should have been credited for.
“There’s a real tension between a storyteller and the sources now. And as a journalist, I’m pro everyone telling a story,” Bereznak says. “I’m sure the thing [Koroma] made is probably compelling. I just wish it would have been handled differently.”
Koroma says this isn’t her first time tackling a heavily covered project. Her last documentary, Dreamland: The Burning Of Black Wall Street, was released at the same time as several other films documenting the Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre. And while Koroma acknowledges that story ownership is a major debate happening in documentary filmmaking, she says that creative license and specific direction mean the same history can be told in dozens of different ways — even working together to fill out a story.
“I remember in the beginning, feeling extremely insecure about [Dreamland],” Koroma says. “And I had this fragile ego about it until somebody said to me, ‘You are going to tell this story differently from this person and they’re going to tell the story differently from you.’ Glitch is a chance for people at HQ to tell their story.”
The interest in the history of HQ Trivia comes back to the communal nature of the app and its flaming downfall. People wanted to be a part of something. And for a moment, HQ Trivia gave that to its viewers. Bereznak’s podcast, Pribis’ TikTok series, and Koroma’s detailed documentary are all different offerings to the question of who owns a story. But there might not be one correct answer.
“This just goes to show how much people really want to be part of this story. It’s okay for there to be a podcast. And it’s okay for there to be a million essays about it,” Koroma says. “Does that mean no one can tell this story because it’s been done in a few different formats? I’m the director of this film and I get to talk to who I talk to. I made a film that I’m proud of. And I did the work.”
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