A chance at $12,000 came down to a guess.

Casey Donahue was at his parents’ house in Los Angeles for Christmas Eve when he found himself among 10 remaining contestants in the final round of HQ Trivia, a daily trivia game show launched in August that broadcasts live on smartphones worldwide and offers thousands of dollars in cash prizes.

Not bad for starting the game against half-a-million players.

At the critical moment, Donahue, a 30-year-old filmmaker, told his parents he was close to winning. They silenced the TV in their living room, and he turned up the volume on his phone.

The final question came: What ingredient is not found in Red Bull Simply Cola? Corn mint, grapefruit peel or galangal? He had 10 seconds to answer.

Donahue guessed grapefruit peel, an ingredient, he later said, that seemed “too natural” to be in the drink. He was correct.

But he wasn’t alone in his winning guess. Another player, 26-year-old Jaimie Ortiz, of Cincinnati, also answered correctly.

Ortiz celebrating moments after she won $6,000 from an HQ Trivia game on Dec 24. (Twitter)

The two each won $6,000, the largest prize awarded at the time to individual users.

“I was expecting a small piece of the 12 grand,” Donahue said. “To walk away with half of it was insane to me.”

HQ combines the fundamentals of TV game shows with mobile technology that makes users feel like winning thousands of dollars is at their fingertips. And Sunday night’s game during the 90th Academy Awards, which attracted 2.1 million people competing for $50,000, proves the audience is only growing.

An analysis of HQ games shows most players don’t progress past the fourth and fifth rounds, a handful of players win the game and, despite the game offering up to $50,000 in prizes, only a subset win a substantial amount of money.

On the rise

In the months after HQ’s launch, the app has seen a surge of users tuning in to play

1M average

monthly users

750K

500K

250K

0

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

Feb.

Note: Average monthly users determined by number of players who participated in the first roundin each game. Data as of Feb. 28.

The Washington Post acquired game data from HQ Insiders, a group of Georgia Tech data scientists who have collected and analyzed questions from the game since October.

Intermedia Labs, a New York-based company started by Vine co-founders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, owns HQ.

The company broadcasts games at 9 p.m. daily and at 3 p.m. Monday through Friday from a studio in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.

The game made its debut on Apple’s App Store last fall. In January, Intermedia Labs released a version in the Google Play Store, which has been installed more than 1 million times.

The game’s premise is simple: Answer 12 multiple-choice questions correctly across 12 rounds and win the cash prize, doled out through PayPal.

Easier said than done.

Players have 10 seconds to answer questions correctly. Try answering one.

:

Questions get increasingly harder, and they cover the conventionally broad array of trivia topics, ranging from Academy Award-winning actors to cocktail ingredients to 20th-century English literature characters.

And, yes, just like “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” there is a live host.

HQ has a cast of rotating hosts. Some celebrities have guest-hosted games, among them Jimmy Kimmel, Ryan Seacrest and former U.S. figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

But most HQ veterans know Scott Rogowsky as the face of the game.

HQ’s Scott Rogowsky

HQ’s Scott Rogowsky

Rogowsky, a 33-year-old New York-based comedian, has developed a cult following among players, whom he calls “HQties,” with his lively on-air persona and copious nicknames, including “Quiz Daddy,” “Quiz Khalifa,” “Regis Trillman” and “Trap Trebeck.”

“I’m very happy here,” he told the Baltimore Sun last month about hosting HQ. “I’m going to sign up with these guys and be part of their long-term future.”

Intermedia Labs has not disclosed details about the technology behind its broadcasts, but the company said it has developed a way to “engage live audiences in real time on an unprecedented scale.”

But with hundreds of thousands of people tuning in to play, the traffic has caused lagging, questions to disappear or, in some cases, forced the game to eject players without warning.

Trivia rat race

A big draw for HQ players is the cash prize.

A review of the data shows that HQ sees its biggest user participation – and largest prizes – on Sundays, especially if games coincide with national events, such as holidays, sports games or award shows.

Any given Sunday

Sunday games

Games on other days

March 4

Academy Awards

$50K prize

40K

Feb. 25

Winter Olympics

Closing Ceremonies

30K

20K

Feb. 4

Super

Bowl LII

10K

0

0

500K

1M

1.5M

2M

players

Note: Players determined by total users who answered the first question in each game.

Data as of March 5.

Any given Sunday

Games on other days

Sunday games

$50K prize

March 4

Academy Awards

40K

Feb. 25

Winter Olympics

Closing Ceremonies

30K

Feb. 4

Super Bowl LII

20K

Dec. 24

Christmas Eve

Jan. 28

Grammy Awards

10K

Jan. 7

Golden Globes

0

0

500K

1M

1.5M

2M players

Note: Players determined by total users who answered the first question in each game.

Data as of March 5.

But don’t count on playing HQ and expecting a big payout.

The game notorious for its tricky questions. Those that eliminate a large swath of players are considered “savage questions.” Here are some sample savage questions from two games in December:

:

:

In an interview, Yusupov said his team doesn’t have a threshold for serving up savage questions.

“It isn’t mathematical,” he said. “It’s a feeling.”

The data is a bit more specific. Savage questions usually yield an elimination rate of more than 70 percent of players in a round.

Answering these questions takes skill, but there’s a little bit of luck needed to survive to the end, barring any glitches within the app or issues with phone connections.

For winners Donahue and Ortiz, surviving to the end and splitting a big prize can seem like an impossible task, especially pitted against thousands of other contestants.

In more than 150 HQ games, the first round has the most correct players. But participants will rapidly fall off as the game progresses.

Here’s Donahue and Ortiz’s game on Dec. 24. The two competed against 500,000 other players for $12,000.

A good chunk of players are often eliminated by the fourth round. Savage questions are likely to appear at this point.

In Donahue and Ortiz’s game, such a question came in the fifth round, wiping out nearly 90 percent of players.

Midway through the game, things aren’t looking good. On average, for every 25 people in a game, only two advance past the sixth round.

By round eight, the game enters its final leg. This means the hardest questions and even fewer survivors.

The 10th and 11th rounds are an ideal time for some last-minute savage questions to eliminate players.

Donahue and Ortiz overcame one – about varieties of fish – in the 10th round.

Winning is an accomplishment. Thousands of people have done it. But only a few can say they’ve won a “significant” amount of money, like Donahue and Ortiz.

“My heart fell out my butt, and I died for two seconds and came back screaming with disbelief we had won $6,000,” Ortiz said about her win.

During one of HQ’s largest games on New Year’s Eve, 34-year-old marketing manager Tim Sessions was one of 300 people out of about 660,000 to win $59.41.

That’s nowhere near the $6,000 Donahue and Ortiz each won in December, but the victory, he said, was enough.

“It goes beyond the money,” said Sessions, of Ogden, Utah. “It’s just fun to compete among thousands of people across the globe and come out on top.”

Using outside help

When people think there may be thousands of dollars on the line, searching for answers on the Internet can be an alluring way to gain an advantage over other contestants.

The round’s 10-second time limit, however, doesn’t stop people from Googling the answers, whether it’s using an eliminated friend’s phone or a non-participant hunched over a laptop.

Googling at lightspeed

Dec. 26, 2017

Round 4

U.S. Google search interest,

indexed at 100

100

Mushroom Kingdom

80

60

40

20

0

9 p.m.

9:05

9:10

9:15

9:20

Dec. 27, 2017

Round 12

100

Omar Bradley

80

60

40

20

0

9 p.m.

9:05

9:10

9:15

9:20

Round 6

Dec. 28, 2017

100

James Murphy

80

60

40

20

0

3 p.m

3:05

3:10

3:15

3:20

Googling at lightspeed

Round 6

Dec. 28, 2017

Dec. 26, 2017

Dec. 27, 2017

Round 12

Round 4

U.S. Google search interest,

indexed at 100

100

80

Mushroom

Kingdom

Omar Bradley

James Murphy

60

40

20

0

9 p.m.

9:05

9:10

9:15

9:20

9 p.m.

9:05

9:10

9:15

9:20

3 p.m

3:05

3:10

3:15

3:20

Googling at lightspeed

Dec. 28, 2017

Dec. 27, 2017

Round 12

Round 6

Dec. 26, 2017

Round 4

U.S. Google search interest,

indexed at 100

100

James Murphy

Omar Bradley

Mushroom Kingdom

80

60

40

20

0

9 p.m.

9:05

9:10

9:15

9:20

9 p.m.

9:05

9:10

9:15

9:20

3 p.m

3:05

3:10

3:15

3:20

Searching for answers on the Internet during a quiz night at the local bar is widely frowned upon.

In contrast, HQ doesn’t consider the act cheating, but it’s “certainly not as fun as testing your knowledge or playing with people who have complementary areas of expertise,” the game states in its FAQ.

Some people have used computer programs to game the game.

A university student in the United Kingdom and a former Google product manager, for example, wrote scripts that could help players pick the correct answer using extracted text from images of questions.

Googling answers is fine with HQ’s organizers. But using code to cheat? That’s not acceptable.

“We want the game to be fun and inclusive, so fairness is paramount to its success,” the game has stated.

The developers who publicize their code and document their process say they don’t use their tools during games.

Exploits developers find could help HQ further bulletproof the game from malicious attacks. One programmer even wrote about how the app’s developers could create an anti-cheating system.

Expansion and competition

In January, Intermedia Labs expanded HQ’s reach into Europe, launching a version of the game in the United Kingdom with questions aimed at a local audience. That same month, Yusupov told Bloomberg Businessweek he intends to create an interactive streaming television network on cellphones.

An HQ ad on NBC right before the Super Bowl broadcast on Feb. 4 cost Intermedia Labs nothing, Bloomberg News reported, leading to speculation the network's parent, Comcast, may be pursuing a partnership deal of some sort with the game.

Other apps have emerged to compete with HQ, including QuizBiz, Genius and The Q.

Will Jamieson, chief executive officer of Stream Live, a live video company in Charleston, S.C., launched The Q, short for “The Question,” in December to compete with HQ.

Like HQ, The Q includes a live host and cash prizes. The difference? In The Q, the game features a “survivor mode” in which there can only be one winner.

User interfaces for HQ (left) and The Q (right).

Jamieson, who co-founded the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak, said Stream Live moved into the live trivia market because, he believed, his company’s video technology could handle the large player traffic “glitch free.”

“It’s a unique positioning, though, where [The Q and HQ Trivia] can coexist similar to Uber and Lyft,” he said.

Crown jewel

Donahue with his Stetson hat. (Courtesy photo)

After his $6,000 victory, Donahue won another $34 and sat at the top of earnings leaderboards for two months until six people split $8,333.33 during Sunday night’s $50,000 game.

Donahue, an alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said he’d donate some of his winnings to the March For Our Lives movement to end gun violence and mass shootings after the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 people dead and 15 injured at the school in Parkland, Fla.

Aside from a few dinners, Donahue said he’s made one “big” purchase with his prize money: a Stetson cowboy hat.

“The hat is the crown jewel of my HQ career,” he said.

About this story

HQ Trivia data from Justin Melnick and Dave Milmont of HQ Insiders. Google search data from Google Trends.

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