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HQ Trivia game has not-so-trivial Canadian connections

HQ Trivia, the internet sensation out of New York City that attracts nearly a million players a game, has a host with a special affinity for Canada and a tie to an Ottawa trivia mastermind.

Why host Scott Rogowsky loves Canada so much

HQ Trivia is a mobile game that gives players the chance to win cash during an interactive, live session. And for those who've noticed the regular references to Canada, it's partly due to the host. (HQ)

Scott Rogowsky, one of the hosts of the online game show HQ Trivia, has become an internet sensation for his nickname dropping and quick-thinking puns. But did you know he has a special affinity for Canada? 

You may have seen hints of it if you're one of the hundreds of thousands who fire up the app every day at 3 p.m. or 9 p.m.  There are the occasional references to places like Moose Jaw, to the "Canadian Tuxedo," and the shout-outs to SCTV.

"I love this country, your country — I wish it was my country," Rogowsky told CBC News during a recent tour of the HQ office in New York.

So where does his love of Canada come from? Take a guess in true HQ Trivia fashion: 

A) He was born in Moose Jaw
B) His wife is Canadian
C) A summer job in 2005

The New York-born Rogowsky isn't married, so that cancels A and B. The answer is C. In the summer of 2005, Rogowsky worked for a trucking company and drove from Montreal to Calgary, hitting everywhere in between.

"We're talking Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Sault St. Marie, Nipigon, Regina, Winnipeg. I don't think I got to Saskatoon, but Medicine Hat for sure," says the affable host, whose detailed knowledge of Canadian geography is combined with a childhood spent idolizing Canadian comedians like Rick Moranis and Martin Short.

Scott Rogowsky, host of the wildly popular HQ Trivia app, reveals how he knows so much about Canada. 0:53

The HQ Phenomenon

Launched in August, HQ Trivia routinely draws more than a million players for its afternoon and evening games. The app reached 2 million players during a special Super Bowl edition on Feb. 5, where the total prize money was $20,000 US.

There are a number of hosts, but Rogowsky quickly emerged as the clear fan favourite.

Not since Regis Philbin and Who Wants to be a Millionaire has a trivia show overtaken popular culture like this. With stories of office work and classes put on hold while the game is on, Rogowsky recognizes he's probably responsible for thousands of hours of lost productivity. 

HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky says he's still getting used to his newfound fame and getting recognized on the street. 'Sometimes they don't know my name, they just yell 'Hey HQ Trivia guy!'' (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)
"When I was working office jobs, I was going on Facebook all the time. If I'd had HQ back then, I'd be on HQ now. It's healthier than a smoke break," he says. 

Rogowsky usually arrives at the HQ offices a few hours before the show. He'll go over the script with the show's team of writers, producers and fact checkers. They'll discuss everything from his performance to the ease of the questions. 

"We want to make them bulletproof, so there can't be any wiggle room for people complaining," Rogowsky says. "People like to complain."

App co-founder Rus Yusupov, who also helped create the video app Vine, says stumping the masses is especially challenging when the very device players are using is also a tool to find the answers.

"If you can Google the answer, if you can come up with the right keywords and find the answer [in 10 seconds], I think you deserve the reward."

Canada's HQ Master

One player who doesn't need a search engine to find the answer is Canadian Paul Paquet. He is one of Canada's foremost trivia experts, having hosted trivia nights in Ottawa for 20 years.

Paquet estimates he's written more than 100,000 multiple choice questions in his career, so it's no surprise that he's one of HQ's top players.

Ottawa trivia master Paul Paquet has conquered HQ Trivia at least 10 times. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC News)

"The skill you need is to be a good guesser," he says. "So you're trying to outthink the way the question's writer is thinking." 

Even with an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia, Paquet says he doesn't always know the answer right away, but he does have a strategy. 

"What I often find, especially in the later questions, is that the answer might well be the thing that seems least likely to you," he says.

Paquet is so good, in fact, they've offered him a job at HQ Trivia.

With more than $700 in winnings, Paquet says a good trivia question is like a riddle where you provide the punchline. (Screenshot/Paul Paquet)
He says over the years he's learned the key to writing a good trivia question.

"People like discovering that they know more than they know. They like being able to think through things like puzzles, and those make good questions."

He says he's eager to get started, "because I've been thinking of ideas I can write, maybe put a little Canadian spin on some things."

The Future of HQ 

Industry watchers say the biggest question for HQ Trivia itself is whether it can keep up the momentum and hold the interest of players like Paul, or end up another passing fad like Pokemon Go.

Screenshots of the HQ Trivia app. The game has been a victim of its own success, sometimes loading slowly or freezing under the load of players. (CBC)
There's already a slew of copycats, and in some ways HQ Trivia is a victim of its own success — the game can be slow to load, and sometimes freezes under the stress of so many players.

Whether it's successful over the long-term or not, co-founder Yusupov says HQ Trivia has broken the mould of conventional mobile games that try to suck players in for as long as possible. 

"We've created a new category here," Yusupov says. "The games happen by appointment, so it's not on all day every day and you can't access it whenever you'd like. And I think that's a new way of thinking about experiences on smartphones that I think many companies can adopt."

With close to a million eyeballs on each game, the app is an advertiser's dream. The creators have managed to keep it ad-free, but Yusupov says the day is coming when they'll incorporate ads — though he won't say how.

Rus Yusupov, seen here at the Shorty Awards in 2014, says his HQ Trivia team is working on how to mix advertising into the game without ruining it for players. (GNeilson Barnard/Getty Images)
Yusupov does say he wants to avoid the mistakes of conventional TV, and not ruin the experience with too many commercials.

He also promises that bigger prizes are on the way. With advertising comes revenue, and that could mean bigger paydays.

"We'd love to give away a million dollars one day. I think we're getting close."

About the Author

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.