Let's Get Quizzical: Global Fan Base for Mobile Trivia Tracks in the Millions

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Trivia apps
Trivia apps

My neighbors must have wondered why I was jumping around my living room on Jan. 31. Well, that was the day I finally won the free mobile game "HQ Trivia." As a former three-time "Jeopardy!" champion, I'd been waiting for years to cash in again on my semi-vast store of knowledge. Yet outside of free beer and the occasional door prize at pub trivia nights, there hadn't been an opportunity.

When "HQ," a live trivia game show developed by Vine creators Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, appeared in the fall of last year, it started a free-to-download mobile app trivia frenzy. I've played several of them, and am always blown away by the numbers that appear on the screen: "Cash Show" consistently draws more than 100,000 players and gives away a total of $20,000 a day on weekends ($9,000 on weekdays); "The Q," a hilariously ramshackle app out of Charleston, South Carolina, gets approximately 10,000 players going for as little as $100 per quiz; "Quiz Biz," on the popular live-streaming app Live.me, gives away up to $50,000—a pop—to tens of thousands of players. "HQ," which on Oscar night gave away a total of $50,000 and drew more than 2 million players, has more than 5 million users worldwide, according to Jonathan Briskman, an analyst for Sensor Tower.

This is a golden time for seasoned trivia players. Lee DiGeorge, a New York schoolteacher who will appear on this year's "Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament," has won "HQ" 12 times for a total of $473, "Quiz Biz" six times for another $274, and other apps several times for smaller payouts. While that's no fortune, it's enough for him to keep a spreadsheet of his wins and losses.

"The first big trivia boom of my lifetime was 1984, when [board game] Trivial Pursuit sold 22 million copies," says Ken Jennings, "Jeopardy!" mega-champion and America's most famous trivia player. "The fad didn't last, but you know what else we got out of it? The Alex Trebek version of 'Jeopardy!' ... I think the new trivia app boom will change the landscape."

The founders of "HQ" have raised money on a company valuation of up to $100 million, according to Thomas Husson, VP of marketing and strategy for Forrester. But even though contestants are enjoying the fruits of their fundraising, can the game, as well as others, turn a profit?

Husson says maybe. "Monetization via ads is an option," he says, as are sponsored quizzes. "The challenge is to be really targeted and relevant, and not to interrupt the gaming experience."

But other than an "HQ" co-hosting gig by "Sesame Street" 's Bert, sponsored content plays have thus far been largely avoided, or at least well-masked, in the category.

Mobile trivia app "FleetWit," a "timed" race where you get points for correct answers and extra points for doing it quickly, makes money through the game itself. While some races are free, some people pay for additional content, says founder David Metz, with some 5,000 subscribers paying an average of $64 a month. Users play in return for gift cards, though Metz says that they will offer cash prizes sometime this year. "FleetWit" takes 20 percent off the top, "so our monetization is straightforward and strong," he says.

But these trivia apps, while burning hot, could easily fade. "There are plenty of games that have been huge successes that have then lost a huge chunk of their audience," says Husson. "Remember 'Angry Birds' or 'Pokémon Go'? They were a lot more popular than the 'HQ Trivia' app game. With hyper-adoption comes hyper-abandonment."

And some apps have already gone belly-up. One, "QuizUp," which soon after launching had more than a million active users and went on to raise $26 million, according to some reports, was forced to lay off all its employees in 2016 and sell its assets.

But despite the challenges, Husson says there's one reason the concept might succeed: Because the quizzes occur at specific times, they're the modern equivalent of appointment television.

"We might be at the beginning of something like we saw with online poker and fantasy sports," says "FleetWit" spokesman Alex Jacob, a multi-million-dollar poker winner and one of the all-time great "Jeopardy!" players. "The only difference is that not everyone plays poker and not everyone watches sports, but almost everyone has played trivia at some point."

In the meantime, the craze continues to give away thousands of dollars a day. As for me, I got a non-life-changing $30.86 the day I won "HQ," along with 80 other people. It went straight into my PayPal account. I'm not exactly sure what to do with all that money. But I'm guessing I'll spend it on something trivial.

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