The game cannot be contained.
It devours downtime. It turns friends against each other. It makes the mild-mannered into mercenaries. It’s Machiavelli meets your freshman dorm.
It’s “Survivor Maryland,” the wildest, realest reality show you’ve never heard of: a low-budget, junior-varsity take on the popular CBS competition show “Survivor.” Instead of being marooned for several weeks on an island, the players undergo challenges and tribal turmoil during an entire semester at the University of Maryland. While the original show fights to stay atop the ratings after 36 seasons, “Survivor Maryland” plugs along with a couple thousand devoted YouTube viewers — and is inspiring a wave of imitators at college campuses across the country.
The craze began with Austin Trupp, 25, a “Survivor” superfan who started watching the show as a Rockville high schooler with a passion for strategy games and social politics. He binged every episode , played online versions via Skype and Web forums, and followed fan-made spinoffs and homages. When he enrolled at the College Park campus in 2011, Trupp was struck by the parallels between college life and the game he loved — social tribes grappling with gnarly interpersonal dynamics in a communal but competitive atmosphere.
“I starting joking with my friends: ‘Hey, we’re living in the same dorm, it’s like an island. Wouldn’t it be fun to play “Survivor” here?’ ” Trupp recalled. “I spent the whole year convincing people to do it.”
From the beginning, Trupp was determined to make an authentic game, with a compelling format that would honor the original. Nothing cheesy or cute would do.
“You hear about this fan-made college show and think it’ll be loser kids going to run around in the park,” Trupp said, “and it’s not that.”
It’s actually . . . a lot like the grown-up “Survivor.”
In one infamous scene from the second season, an undergraduate in a tie-dyed shirt and a backpack delivers a prime-time-worthy soliloquy rallying her teammates to take down two powerful players whom she proclaims to be “the type of [expletives] we’re going to be up against our entire lives.”
“They’re just doing this because they want to win. They want to prove that they’re macho men,” Siona Slepoy tells a gaggle of her hoodie-clad teammates slouching in an empty campus lounge. The walls are covered with bulletin boards and motivational posters. The couches are predictably hideous.
“Yes, sticking it to the man,” one of them shouts, pumping his fist. “Let’s uprise!”
Slepoy stokes their rage. Their opponents, she says, are the kind of guys who get the scholarships, the girls, the jobs. (Not Team Slepoy: “We’re the Bad News Bears,” says one.) “I’m so sick of these guys getting everything they want,” Slepoy says, nearly drowned out by her teammates’ cheering. “How about we take them down once and for all? Don’t we want tears to flow out of their eyes because they lost?”
It’s moments like this that make the show, Trupp said. The contestants’ investment extends beyond the game; there are real relationships and emotions at stake.
“There were nights where they were up at 5 a.m. yelling at each other outside a dorm in front of tiki torches because they’re angry about things that happened in contrived scenarios,” Trupp said. “I remember always thinking on campus that nobody could understand what we’re doing here and how crazy it is.”
Trupp started putting the show together the summer after his freshman year. He recruited a cast of 21 hypercompetitive friends and filmed through the fall of 2012, quickly settling on a formula reminiscent of the original — contestants split into tribes that compete in “challenges” testing their teamwork, resourcefulness and athletic ability, with players gradually eliminated via “tribal council” votes. The winner is the last person standing, selected by a jury of eliminated contestants.
He borrowed the look and feel of the original — tiki torches, quirky musical cues, brightly colored bandannas to mark tribes, frantic conversations filmed with night-vision cameras, time-lapse shots of the night sky.
But every frame reminds the viewer how thoroughly “college” the show is. Players wear cutoff Greek-letter shirts. They strategize in bars and dingy living rooms with empty handles of liquor on the coffee table and then bluff their opponents with stories about hookups and roommate drama to obscure their tactics in the game. They outline their battle plans on chalkboards in empty lecture halls.
Six years and five seasons later, “Survivor Maryland” is notorious. Some of its episodes on YouTube have more than 15,000 views. It’s amassed an avid following that includes former showrunners and contestants from the CBS show.
But this fifth season will be Trupp’s last. He graduated three years ago. And it’s taken him that long to wade through the hundreds of hours of footage from his senior year and transform it into a story-rich show. He’s a government analyst now, spending 20-odd hours a week in his downtime editing his final episodes and monitoring the show’s YouTube and Reddit pages.
Some fans say “Survivor Maryland” improves upon the original show, with longer episodes that better explore the twists and turns of the game’s psychological warfare, according to Colin Stone, who runs a “Survivor” fan podcast.
“The format is really well suited to play to the natural strengths of the concept of the game,” Stone said. “For the people who really love the game, ‘Survivor Maryland’ is what we’ve always wished the CBS version could be.”
In the network version, competitors are removed from their normal lives and play the game against strangers in a remote location for 39 days. The winner walks away with $1 million and a debatable degree of fame — but then gets to return to real life, the consequences of their gameplay left behind.
“Survivor Maryland” unfolds over several months, against a backdrop familiar to anyone who has set foot on a college campus. Competitors mud-wrestle for “immunity” prizes on grassy quads and do confessional interviews in dorm rooms and lounges — all while remaining bogged down in the usual obligations: school, work, relationships, extracurriculars. The prize is a paltry $100. And perhaps most interestingly, they often compete against people they know and care about. Whatever drama plays out will follow them to their next semester. And boy, is there drama.
“ ‘Survivor’ really makes you feel like you’re dating a douchey frat boy who rolled up to a party with another girl,” one exhausted contestant says after a surprising tribal council vote. “You just feel used and like you don’t know what to think, and you kind of feel dirty after it all, and you just don’t know who to trust.”
As players shuffle and scheme, backstabbery and betrayal are routine. Almost every contestant declares “I’m not here to make friends” at one point or another; tears and shouting are a typical outcome of tribal councils. The line between the game and real life is porous at best. Victoria Zhao, 22, a two-time competitor, learned this firsthand, when one of her friendships fell apart over a tribal-council elimination vote.
“I saw what I was doing in the game as purely the game. It made me feel like I could do things I probably wouldn’t do if it were a real-life situation,” Zhao said. “It kind of left a bitter taste on my experience.”
Some players have trouble going back to normal life after the game ends.
“I affected the game, and the game affected me,” said Chris LeCompte, a two-time competitor notorious for having once evaded elimination with a blatant lie: He claimed his dog had just died. “It has a mental impact on the way you perceive people and their motivations.”
Roughly six episodes remain in Trupp’s final season, which features all-stars from his earlier ones. After he left Maryland, the show continued under another student, Anders Norberg, who, a couple of months after his own graduation, is also still laboring to get his episodes to the public. And Norberg has now passed the tiki torch on to the next producer, an undergrad who has plans to continue the show.
More than a dozen spinoffs have replicated Trupp’s concept at other colleges, including Ohio State University, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. They vary in form and length, and certainly in following, but they’re all trying to replicate the “Survivor Maryland” magic.
“Austin’s like the Michael Jordan of college ‘Survivor,’ ” said Greg Friedberg, who hosts “Survivor: Time and Change” at Ohio State. “What Austin does set the bar really high, and I’d never try to compete with it. We’re all just crazy in love with this game.”
He paused and started to laugh.
“Maybe too much.”