HQ: Inside the Game Show App Phenomenon

In just a few months, host Scott Rogowsky has led millions to tune in each day – but amid controversy, can the wildly popular app find its footing?

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Scott Rogowsky perches in a makeup chair, staring intently at the MacBook on his lap with 30 minutes to go until showtime. Two paper towels are tucked into his collar and a silver styling clip pins back his hair. Come 3 p.m., his suit jacket and his scalp pristine, he'll sling trivia questions and quips to an audience that numbers just a few in real life, but up to 2.4 million remotely, as the host of HQ Trivia. The live game show app has become nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.

HQ's loft in SoHo, Manhattan, is a tight fit for a growing staff of about 30. On one wall, there's a neon sign glowing "HQ," while another is plastered with brightly colored index cards, a schedule that indicates which host will present what game when. Atop a gray couch, there's a green pillow bearing the word "Vine," a throwback to the now-defunct video app previously started by HQ cofounders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll. Nearby, a woman's eyes stare out over a TV in a vintage poster for the French electronics manufacturer Sonora Television, whose slogan promises "vous donnera la meilleure image" – that is, to give you the best picture.

The retrofuturistic art is an apt choice for an app that's been hailed as groundbreaking for updating an improbably old-fashioned format: the live game show. Every night at 9 p.m. EST, and at 3 p.m. on weekdays, HQ players are faced with 12 increasingly difficult multiple-choice questions, with 10 seconds to answer each of them. Guess right, and you move on to the next question. Guess wrong, and you're eliminated. The winners split a minimum prize of $5,000 (recently upped from $2,500) with the individual shares often amounting to just a few dollars.

The rise of HQ has been rapid since its August launch. Though they started with only hundreds of users in the first few weeks, games now routinely draw more than 1 million players. A special Super Bowl halftime episode – with a then-highest-ever prize of $20,000 – nearly doubled that. This past Wednesday, a $250,000 pot – the highest yet – lured a record-setting 2.3 million players. For all you know, on any given day, your unseen competition may include legendary news anchor Dan Rather, who won HQ with his family on Christmas Eve.

But for all its loyal players and besotted media coverage – and even though the app may or may not be plotting something with a major television network – HQ has also courted controversy in its relatively brief existence. Most recently, there was a public outcry after the company secured an investment from Founders Fund, a venture capital firm co-founded by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who many see as a villain.

"It's about shared moments with the people you know and love and hang out with every day," says one co-founder. 

For now, at least, the atmosphere inside the office is anything but chaotic. Just past the elevator is a clothing rack reserved for a selection of immaculate white shirts and six blazers, from blue to charcoal. "This is the Scott closet," jokes Kristen Alsterklint, a communications consultant working with the company. HQ has several regular presenters in its rotation, but by far the most beloved (and most used) is Rogowsky, a stand-up comic whose massive popularity has become inextricable from that of the app itself.

During games in which he does not appear, the chat window that occupies the bottom quarter of the screen – which, mercifully, can be swiped away – is filled with calls to "Free Scott" from those bemoaning his absence. Rogowsky's punny, slightly manic between-question patter is rife with pop culture references, including "Let's get down to the nitty-gritty, let's get this show on the road," the repurposed Phish lyrics with which he opens every game. The self-dubbed Quiz Khalifa, Quizzie McGuire, Host Malone and Trap Trebek affectionately calls players "HQties." They, in turn, call him Quiz Daddy or – in a nod to the app's frequent, low-key infuriating technical issues – Lag Daddy.

As a makeup artist dabs Rogowsky's face, Yusupov and head writer Jesse Thompson stand beside him, reading through the afternoon's 12 questions. "Are you doing any impressions today?" Yusupov asks. "I could try to do Yoko Ono," Rogowsky offers, pulling up "Angela" on his computer. He practices wailing along. (The song, and activist Angela Davis, are to be the subject of Q9.) "People do like to hear you sing," Yusupov says. The CEO joins in on this last-minute review when he can, Alsterklint explains. "It depends on the questions and the day. He likes to be really involved," she says. "This is his baby."

HQ's pervasiveness and sci-fi aesthetics have inspired Black Mirror comparisons; The Atlantic even labelled the app as a "harbinger of dystopia." Its creators describe it instead as a meaningful collective experience. "We're finding people are booking time on their calendars and making plans to hang out with their friends so they can play HQ together," says Yusupov. He and Kroll cofounded Intermedia Labs, HQ's parent company, after experimenting with Hype, an interactive live-streaming video app. Now, Yusupov hopes to "build the future of TV."

"With Netflix and YouTube and Hulu and these other digital entertainment companies that have emerged in the recent past, it's all about convenience," says Yusupov. "It's made people really lazy, I think. Personally, I search Netflix for 20 minutes and I end up watching nothing. We're very deliberately going against that mindset." This particular vision of the future of TV has a lot in common with its monocultural past: Yusupov expresses nostalgia for appointment-to-view programming blocks like NBC's Must-See TV Thursdays and Saturday morning cartoons. "We think now is a great time for people to start forming habits like this again," he says. "It's about shared moments with the people you know and love and hang out with every day."

A few minutes before 3 p.m., Rogowsky shrugs on a navy jacket. Today's look is business on top, hip dad on the bottom: tan chinos and Onitsuka Tiger sneakers, worn with poutine socks he's pretty sure he got for free. Humming to himself, he enters the studio – a room directly off the main office space, which I've been asked neither to enter nor report on – with a grapefruit LaCroix in hand. The sound of someone asking an Amazon Echo to play Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" filters through the wall. Alexa obliges. Sharon Carpenter, the broadcast journalist who presents the UK edition of the game, arrives, taking Rogowsky's place in hair and makeup. Not far from where Carpenter sits, a pull-up bar is mounted in a doorway, and I'm told Rogowsky sometimes uses it to get pumped up before games. Alsterklint tries to stream the game on an imposingly tall vertical monitor, but connecting it to wifi proves a puzzle, even when Yusupov is enlisted to help. I watch on my phone instead.

Scott's cry of "2,006 of you are winners, baby!" echoes through the office. His voice is buoyed by an enthusiasm befitting a much bigger payout than $1.25. 

Rogowsky's Yoko Ono impression doesn't make it to air. After a typically eclectic round of questions about – among other things – the shapes that comprise the Olympic logo (five rings), Nestlé's term for their Toll House chocolate chips (morsels), and which of three given public figures shares his given name with a ketchup (Heinz a.k.a. Henry Kissinger), Scott's cry of "2,006 of you are winners, baby!" echoes through the office. His voice is buoyed by an enthusiasm befitting a much bigger payout than $1.25. By 3:14 p.m., the afternoon's work is done, and he changes into a pair of trousers that match his jacket before leaving HQ HQ.

Rogowsky's credits include the ABC hidden-camera reality show Would You Fall for That? with future Saturday Night Live cast member Sasheer Zamata, as well as a series of popular videos in which he reads books with ridiculous fake covers on the subway. He's also the long-time host of the live talk show Running Late, on which his father Marty serves as his sidekick. (HQtie Dan Rather was the marquee guest on Running Late's March 12th show.) Last year, he had decided to seek the warmer show-business climes of Los Angeles, having already given up his Brooklyn apartment, when he was offered the HQ job. Since the app launched, he's been traveling into the city from his parents' house in Harrison, New York. The day we spoke, Rogowsky was planning to spend his first night in his new place, on West 10th Street – a "15-minute brisk walk" from the office, as opposed to the hour-and-a-half train journey from suburban Westchester.

Rogowsky's former commute sounds incongruously unglamorous for someone who's ascended to Internet royalty. He's a muse for fan art, Halloween costumes, more impressions than he cares to hear, and even a talking doll. Not long ago, he learned of a casting breakdown for a "Scott Rogowsky type." ("I guess it's Jason Biggs with a beard," he says.) Joe Biden greeted him with a "Hey, this guy's viral!" when they met at the Super Bowl. At a café near his office, two men in their early twenties passing on the street get Scott's attention through the plate-glass window. Through a series of charades that are incomprehensible to me, he determines that, like him, they went to Johns Hopkins University. "I'm a rock star at the WeWorks and tech centers of New York," he says.

Rogowsky has also become something of a sex symbol, to no one's surprise more than his own. "I wouldn't follow me on Instagram," says the 33-year-old recipient of many a thirsty DM. "I've never thought of myself as a good-looking guy, necessarily. I feel like I'm a matinée idol or something now."

Rogowsky shines the brightest, ironically, when HQ fails to function. Whereas other hosts have frozen like deer in the million-viewer headlights in the event of server issues, Lag Daddy presses on. During a particularly disastrous New Year's Eve game, timed to end with a ball drop, no questions appeared on players' screens. Once he'd given up on proceeding with the game, Rogowsky bravely ad-libbed through the five endless minutes left until the clock struck midnight.

"We're serving one of the – if not the – largest livestream daily on the Internet," Yusupov says. "We're doing something that's never been done before. If we get through some of these technical challenges, we can unlock a massive opportunity for not just ourselves, but the world of digital media."

The promise of a post-lag future, and the expanded engineering capacity required to achieve it, seems more in reach following a polarizing new round of funding. In early February, HQ raised $15 million from Founders Fund, in which Peter Thiel is a partner. The Palantir co-founder is notorious for, among other things, donating $1.25 million to Donald Trump's presidential campaign – in the wake of the Access Hollywood "grab 'em by the pussy" tape's release – and for clandestinely financing Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, which ultimately caused the site to shutter. The backlash to the app's association with Thiel was swift, spawning the hashtag #DeleteHQ.

Yusupov seems unfazed. "We're incredibly grateful to have the backing of Founders Fund," he says. "They're one of the top venture firms in Silicon Valley. Their philosophy around backing founders with really big visions and ambitious goals, hinged on massive technical challenges, was in line with what we have going on here. Cyan Banister, the partner at Founders Fund that we're working with and we're bringing on board, she really gets what we're trying to do."

"To me, it's just silly," says Rogowsky. "I mean, delete Spotify, delete Lyft, delete Facebook. All these people getting righteous about it, delete all your apps, because I'm sure there's some guy behind all of them that you don't agree with."

This isn't the first controversy weathered by HQ. In November, Yusupov berated Daily Beast reporter Taylor Lorenz over the phone and threatened to fire Rogowsky over an interview in which he professed his love of the salad chain Sweetgreen. In December, Recode reported that other potential investors had been deterred by HQ cofounder Colin Kroll's alleged reputation for "exhibiting inappropriate behavior toward women" in the workplace. "It's difficult to make comments about anonymous generalizations in the media, but at the company, we take workplace safety very seriously," Yusupov says of these allegations. "We strive to create an environment here that's inspiring, encouraging, where people feel respected and valued." (Kroll has denied that he sexually harassed anyone, though he did tell Axios, "I now realize that there are things I said and did that made some feel unappreciated or uncomfortable. I apologize to those people.")

Strictly considering the product, and none of the human turbulence that has surrounded it, it's easy to understand HQ's siren call to brands and advertisers – but HQ’s comfortable venture backing means there has been no rush to settle on a business model. Until, maybe, now.

"I mean, delete Spotify, delete Lyft, delete Facebook," says Rogowsky. "Delete all your apps, because I'm sure there's some guy behind all of them that you don't agree with."

It's seemed increasingly likely that something is developing between HQ and NBC, although it remains to be seen exactly what that something is. A commercial for the app (featuring HQ player Lauren May's viral reaction to her win) aired during the Super Bowl, but Intermedia Labs didn't pay a cent for its slice of the most valuable airtime of the year. As Bloomberg observed, HQ hired Brandon Teitel – a CNBC alum – as head of programming and strategic partnerships in January. "We don't pay for advertising," Yusupov says. "I can't comment on the specifics of what we're doing with NBC or what happened there – but yeah, we got a free Super Bowl ad." On the day of my visit, after he wraps the afternoon’s game, Rogowsky asks Teitel, "Was NBC watching?"

This week, HQ went corporate like never before. A surprise game on Sunday, sponsored by Nike – and featuring a number of sneaker-themed questions – split a $100,000 prize among four winners, who were each awarded a pair of special-edition HQ Air Maxes. More incredibly, the app just struck an ad deal with Warner Bros., reportedly worth $3 million, to promote three films within the game. The first of these, Ready Player One, was energetically pitched by Rogowsky throughout the $250,000 game on Wednesday, the day of the movie's premiere. His introduction referenced Ready Player One's dystopian plot: It takes place in a ruinous future in which most people spend as much time as possible in the OASIS, a global virtual-reality game. "Many of you have been coming to HQ for these past few months to escape, to find an oasis of lively trivia and bad puns," Rogowsky said. Director Steven Spielberg – a.k.a. "The Spiel McCoy," "The Wizard of Jaws," and "The Man of Your Dreamworks" – was shouted out with a series of punny honorifics. By The Ringer's count, the film was mentioned explicitly 21 times. 

Though HQ has emerged from its cocoon a beautiful, if slightly depressing, native-advertising butterfly, Yusupov tells me that he doesn't want to make the same "mistakes" that television has. "TV networks need to keep the lights on – the best way to do that is by cramming more ads in, and it's kind of a downward spiral," he says. Conventional advertising doesn't interest him, nor does "blatant" product placement. "We're the underdog," he says. "This isn't a slick late-night show. It's not like a top celebrity doing a game show on NBC or Fox."

But can a company with a VC valuation of $100 million, a free Super Bowl ad – and, since its CEO and I spoke, freshly minted deals with Warner Bros. and Nike – really call itself an "underdog?" Yusupov says he's "very sensitive" to the prospect of selling out. "Growing up, listening to some of my favorite bands and watching their careers evolve into these glossy pop musicians, there's not a worse feeling than that. It's kind of like Muse doing dubstep," he says, laughing. "We want to maintain our irreverent, iconoclastic vibe."

Touting HQ's "homegrown" appeal, Yusupov pulls his phone from his pocket like he's proudly producing a photo of his grandchildren. He plays a screen recording of Rogowsky hosting HQ for an audience of eight players, from "episode one, almost," in August. It's shocking how quickly the game has already grown. Conspicuously missing are HQ's slick graphics and dizzyingly colorful backdrop; Scott's face is a little fuller, his hair a little more unkempt. He sounds sleepy.

"I'm so fortunate to be the pioneer in this, to be the first to get this kind of job," Rogowsky says. 

As for Rogowsky, HQ has rocketed him on an untraveled career trajectory – the showbiz medium that's made him a breakout star quite literally did not exist nine months ago. But Rogowsky's own TV prognostications sound a little bleaker, perhaps because they're informed by the perspective of a long-hustling comedian. "There are 5 billion cable channels and digital channels," he says, noting how a pilot he had for TruTV ended up falling through, only to be picked up by an online streaming platform. "There are so few jobs for comedians on networks, that taxi TV and elevator TV and all this stuff are what I and every other comedian now are gunning for."

But Scott no longer needs to participate in that digital rat race, thanks to a gig that both exemplifies and transcends it. "I'm so fortunate to be the pioneer in this, to be the first to get this kind of job," Rogowsky says of HQ. "But I mean, there are already competitors. In a year, two years, five years, I imagine it'll be like cable TV. There will be 10,000 apps with 10,000 live comedians doing 10,000 different things. Thankfully, we're here first. It's going to get to the point where it'll be an all-night comedian fest. But they'll have 5,000 people watching."

Before HQ, Rogowsky had aspired to host his own talk show on TV, or to serve as a correspondent on a comedy news outfit like The Daily Show. "Honestly, I've got friends who have those jobs who are now like, 'I want your job,'" he says, laughing. "I sort of leapfrogged with this thing. It's the dream job I could never dream of."