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To the Max

Don't Mistake Max's HQ Trivia Documentary For the Full Story

Director Salima Koroma allows Scott Rogowsky to shape the narrative in his favor, while excluding valuable information from other key players.
  • The voice of former host Scott Rogowsky guides Glitch: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia. (Photos: CNN)
    The voice of former host Scott Rogowsky guides Glitch: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia. (Photos: CNN)

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    Even before Glitch: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia premiered on CNN in March, the documentary was beset by controversy. When the trailer dropped in early February, The Ringer's Alyssa Bereznak spoke out about the obvious similarities between her 2020 podcast series, Boom/Bust: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia, and Salima Koroma's film. Bereznak also expressed ethical concerns about the documentary, noting that co-executive producers Dylan Abruscato and Brandon Teitel are former HQ executives. (Neither appears in the film). "Employees are not objective storytellers," she wrote on Twitter. "Each of them rightly has their own angle and motivation for telling the story in a certain way."

    Around the same time, Sarah Pribis, who hosted HQ for over a year, including when the app was in beta mode, released a multi-part "TikTokumentary" detailing the "toxic environment" at the company and the sexism she experienced during her time there. Pribis was unable to offer additional comment for this story due to SAG-AFTRA's restrictions amid the strike, but we did review the social media videos and pulled out the following quotes. Pribis says that because she wasn't asked to participate in Glitch — Koroma told Rolling Stone Pribis was brought in for a pre-interview, but the former host claims she was only asked to "fact check some dates" after filming was completed — her TikTokumentary "is really the only way" to share her story. "I wonder whose narrative they're telling and what pieces they're choosing to leave out," she posted alongside a clip of the trailer.

    While Bereznak and Pribis first voiced concerns before having seen Glitch, which premieres July 20 on Max, the documentary proves that criticism was well founded. Koroma's film is best described as The Scott Rogowsky Show: The former HQ host, who emerged as the face of the trivia app after it launched in August 2017, is given free rein to tell his side of the story as he sees fit. In extensive interviews, Rogowsky paints himself as a hero who tried to mitigate the damage done by the feud between co-founders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, the latter of whom died of a drug overdose in December 2018.

    As Rogowsky tells it, he and Yusupov were at odds from the beginning, and their relationship only worsened as Rogowsky's star rose. The former host says Yusupov was tired of being an "anonymous" player "behind the scenes" of a popular app (Yusupov and Kroll previously launched Vine and sold it to Twitter in 2012) and was jealous of Rogowsky's growing reputation as "Quiz Daddy," as he became known among fans. "Here he was, seeing another guy get famous off another one of his products, and it wasn't sitting too well with him," says Rogowsky, who recalls Yusupov telling him that he planned to hire a celebrity host as the app grew. "This was Rus telling me, 'You're replaceable.'"

    Though he stops short of saying it outright, Rogowsky also lends credence to the theory that Yusupov leaked allegations about Kroll's "creepy" behavior at Twitter to secure the title of HQ Trivia CEO in late 2017. "There was a lot of speculation around why this article came out when it did," says Rogowsky. "The instances they were talking about were years prior when [Kroll] was at Twitter. Why is this coming out now, right when the fundraise is happening? Right when they're figuring out who's going to run the company?" A title card informs viewers that Yusupov has denied this claim — and Kurt Wagner, who wrote the original Vox Recode story about Kroll's alleged behavior, later reported that Yusupov "was unaware of the extent of Kroll's issues at Twitter" — but Rogowsky's voice, set against a gloomy score, rises to the top.

    Glitch's effort to characterize Yusupov as the most malicious figure in the HQ saga has the unfortunate effect of diminishing the allegations against Kroll, who apologized for his behavior shortly after the Recode story was published. The film is interested in Kroll's alleged misconduct, including a 2018 complaint filed by an HQ employee, only in the context of Kroll and Yusupov's conflict; there doesn't seem to be concern for the women affected by his "inappropriate and unprofessional" behavior as a manager, or a real attempt to look into the complaints beyond what's already been reported. Instead, Koroma gives Rogowsky and investor Drew Patterson, a friend of Kroll's, space to cast doubt on the veracity of Wagner's reporting: Patterson insists "the Recode article played into a cultural moment" and laments the fact that Kroll "got caught up" in the "reckoning" of the #MeToo movement.

    While HQ's behind-the-scenes scandals spooked some investors, its user base only grew in the first quarter of 2018. The app peaked in March of that year with 2.2 million daily users, but boredom and a frustration with HQ's persistent technical issues soon set in among consumers; by August, that number dropped to below 1 million, and it kept falling in the months ahead. Once again, Rogowsky lays the blame for HQ's dwindling user base at Yusupov's feet: In a rapid-fire sequence, former employees offer various ideas that could have kept players engaged, but the "Quiz Daddy" claims Yusupov would "not allow" any new ideas, including those from Kroll, the chief technology officer at the time.

    As Rogowsky details the company's crisis in late summer 2018, the story he wants to tell comes into focus. He portrays himself as the savior of HQ Trivia, which he likens to "a patient on the operating table bleeding out" as two doctors argue about the best course of treatment. "Someone had to raise the alarm here, and that ended up being me," says Rogowsky, explaining that he took it upon himself to go to the board and recommended Yusupov's removal as CEO.

    Shortly after, Yusupov floated a new idea: Appoint Rogowsky as the company's CEO. In audio surreptitiously recorded by Rogowsky, the men admit the idea is "kooky," as Rogowsky is a comedian with no formal business or app development experience, but the host pushed those concerns aside — "I did take business school classes at Hopkins," he tells documentary producers — and put together a presentation explaining why he's HQ's "last hope" for success. "I said, 'I think people in the office would respect me.' They already did. So I would rally everybody together and say, 'Guys, let's save this thing. Let's turn this around,'" Rogowsky recalls, with unmistakable confidence in his voice. Drawing an implicit connection between himself and the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel, he adds, "If not me, who? If not now, when?"

    The board politely declined Rogowsky's pitch and instead named Kroll CEO, but even years later, he remains convinced he was the better candidate with a clearer vision for HQ. "Colin, now in this capacity as CEO, had the ability to excommunicate Rus. If I became CEO, that would've been my first order of business," says Rogowsky. "Unfortunately, that's not what Colin did when he became CEO, and it caused all sorts of other problems."

    Glitch is guided by Rogowsky's version of events, but it's difficult to read his heroic retelling as anything other than an attempt to depict himself in the best possible light. His unreliability as a narrator becomes even more apparent when viewed alongside Bereznak's podcast. In the final episode, "Selling for Parts," Bereznak reports that the HQ host asked to be compensated for participating in Boom/Bust, a request she denied, as it would violate the journalistic integrity of the project. However, sources informed Bereznak that Rogowsky told former HQ employees that he planned to contact The Ringer founder Bill Simmons to discuss a "revenue-sharing model, or potentially be in charge of the editorial vision of [the] podcast." A representative for CNN told the Daily Beast that Rogowsky wasn't paid to participate in Glitch, but his alleged effort to oversee the "editorial vision" of Boom/Bust raises questions about his testimony and the documentary's explicit criticism of Yusupov.

    Of course, Yusupov is by no means innocent in this story. In November 2017, he told the Daily Beast technology reporter Taylor Lorenz that he would fire Rogowsky if she published a puff-piece profile on the host, igniting a media firestorm. (Lorenz sits for an interview that lends an air of objectivity to this segment of the documentary.) Rogowsky's secretly-recorded audio also portrays the embattled co-founder as a petty, desperate man willing to do whatever it took to prevent his partner from being named CEO. And Yusupov declaring himself an "Elon Musk fanboy" certainly does him no favors, even if that praise came three years before Musk assumed the role of Twitter supervillain.

    Yusupov declined to be interviewed for Glitch — as he told Bereznak on Twitter, "Knowing who the producers were behind the CNN doc made me opt out due to potential conflicts/bias" — so he's unable to respond to the claims made against him. While that's a problem any documentarian must contend with when their subjects do not (or cannot) participate, Rogowsky's hold over the narrative is a more concerning issue, especially in light of Pribis' experience and the details revealed in her TikTokumentary.

    Pribis, who hosted HQ's first million-player game in January 2018 (she led many of the daytime games, while Rogowsky hosted the bulk of the nighttime games), says the conflict between Yusupov and Kroll "did breed this competitive environment between everyone there," including she and Rogowsky. When Pribis hosted her own games or filled in for Rogowsky, the app's live chat feature would fill up with nasty comments from users demanding that HQ "free Scott." In Part 3 of the TikTokumentary, she explains that while she tried to laugh off the cruel, sexist messages she received — she released a "Free Scott" comedy sketch and a Jimmy Kimmel-style "Celebrities Read Mean Tweets" video — it still stung. "I would go home, try to watch my performance back, see the chat, and cry," Pribis recalls.

    As the undisputed face of the brand, Rogowsky had the power to quash the public abuse of Pribis (and HQ's other female hosts), but never once did he mention the vitriol spewed in HQ's chat or the "Free Scott" movement on Twitter or in the dozens of interviews he did during his 18 months as host. That trend continues in Glitch, which spends less than a minute acknowledging the "boys club" mentality within the company — a female employee remembers feeling pressured to clean up "beer cans left behind from the night before" and make coffee for her colleagues — before returning to Yusupov and Kroll's worsening feud. Rogowsky claims he was "eating, sleeping, and breathing HQ" during his time there, but he isn't called on to reflect on the culture at the company, let alone evaluate his role in shaping it.

    In the final two parts of her TikTokumentary, which were released after Glitch aired on CNN, Pribis says she provided information that "certainly would have added to the themes of things that were discussed, like the fight for power or the 'boys club,'" but her testimony was "not included in the documentary." Specifically, she recalls one of the co-founders (she declines to reveal who it was) telling her to "never wear that again" after she wore a skirt and top, rather than a dress, on camera, and shares that the HQ account released a Twitter poll "that just said two of the [female] host's first initials" and nothing else. "It's fine if you want to poll your audience and see who they like, but how do they even know what they're voting for?" she says in a video that's been viewed nearly 100,000 times. "If you feel the need to be so cryptic, you clearly know you're doing something wrong."

    Pribis also claims that for her first year, during which she helped the app grow to over 2 million users, she was paid $150 per show — and her salary only increased after she saw a job listing advertising $350 per game. Even once she earned the higher rate, Pribis felt her salary was not commensurate with the show's immense popularity and her workload, as she was responsible for writing her own material, and early in the app's run, purchasing her own wardrobe and doing her hair and makeup. Pribis doesn't know what Rogowsky was paid per show — "I would looooove to know how much he got paid," she wrote in a comment — and he doesn't share as much in Glitch, but at the very least, the documentary reveals his suits were paid for by the company, and Yusupov was intimately involved in styling his wardrobe.

    Koroma told Rolling Stone that Pribis was not included in the film because her team "had what [they] needed," but the lack of Pribis' perspective represents a major missed opportunity. Even worse, if the director was armed with information about unfair pay practices and sexism at HQ — topics Rogowsky could have shed additional light on — and declined to include it in the documentary, it points to a significant oversight on behalf of the production team. Pribis' initial question about "whose narrative they're telling and what pieces they're choosing to leave out" thus seems to be the right one, just as Bereznak's concerns about the involvement of two former HQ executives have proven valid.

    For viewers who deleted HQ Trivia long before its scandals began piling up, Glitch offers an adequate retelling of the events that led to the app's demise, but Max subscribers should be mindful of the underlying narrative and all that's been excluded from it. As Pribis, whose voice deserves to be elevated in this story, says: "I'm not saying this narrative is wrong. I'm simply reminding viewers that you're only getting a small piece of the full picture."

    Glitch: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia drops Thursday, July 20 on Max.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Glitch: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia, CNN, Max, Salima Koroma, Scott Rogowsky, HQ Trivia