On Wednesday night, HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky made a familiar, if somewhat disingenuous, proposition to his 2.35 million viewers. “Many of you have been coming to HQ for these past few months to escape, to find an oasis of lively trivia and bad puns,” he said at the beginning of the app-based trivia show. “But tonight you’ll find something much bigger. I’ve created a hidden object, an Easter egg in tonight’s quiz. The first person to find it will inherit a quarter of a million dollars and total control of HQ.”
This was not entirely true. Though an unprecedented $250,000 cash prize was up for grabs, control of HQ was not. There were no Easter eggs or hidden objects, just a handful of obvious indicators that the fledgling app was maturing. Earlier this month, the company signed a $3 million deal with Warner Bros. to promote its movies. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One is one of them, so Rogowsky recited an altered version of his typical HQ spiel, modified to read like ad copy for the sci-fi thriller.
The irony of this ad placement for a movie that illustrates our fraught digital future is likely not lost on HQties who, despite their love of the game, acknowledge its dystopian essence. Strip away Rogowsky’s mugging and the app offers a crude exchange. You, a smartphone user, are enticed by the possibility of acquiring a large lump sum of money. To have a chance at winning, you must pause your life twice a day for 15 minutes and offer your undivided attention. Up until this week, the only toll a participant had to pay for the chance at a cash prize was enduring Rogowsky’s excessive word play. But now it’s official: Your undivided attention is being exploited for ad money. Baby’s all grown up.
We always knew this was how it was going to go. No app that gives out thousands of dollars in cash prizes twice a weekday would be able to sustain itself without some kind of corporate sugar daddy. But these new sponsorships, which also included a Nike-themed show for “Air Max Day,” offer a clear road map to understanding just how closely advertising will be integrated into the content of the show going forward. It turns out that everyone’s favorite quiz app doesn’t simply plan to slap a logo or two in the game’s opening credits. Rather, it’s willing to exist almost entirely as 15 minutes’ worth of native advertising.
To understand what that means, it’s helpful to break down the real estate that advertisers staked out in this week’s shows. For starters, HQ promoted trailers for both Monday’s Nike game and Wednesday’s Ready Player One episode. When it came time for each game to air, HQ’s “waiting room” — the screen that occupies participants’ smartphones before the live video feed of the game starts — was modified to include phrases that combined the game’s original messaging with brand-themed catchphrases. The night Nike cohosted, that meant typical HQ advice like “No smoking” and “Turn up the volume” became “Breath” and “Just answer it.” On Wednesday, the usual “Plug in your device” became “Charge your immersion pod.”
For both promotions, the content of the game itself was also altered to mention the brands, or topics related to them. Monday’s game featured more sneaker-related questions than usual, some of which could’ve been lifted straight from Nike’s Wikipedia page. On Wednesday, Rogowsky kicked off the questions by explaining “just like Ready Player One, tonight’s game is jam-packed with wall-to-wall action, bursting at the seams with pop-culture nostalgia.” Questions included, “In the Spielberg film ‘E.T.’ what does E.T. stand for?,” and, “In the book Ready Player One, the hero’s spacecraft is named after the author of what novel?” Every once in a while, there was a geography-related question to slim down the player pool. But for those who are financially motivated to open HQ twice a day, the message was clear: If you want a better shot at winning money, study the upcoming sponsor.
On top of all that, HQ also clearly sees an opportunity to combine the cachet its brand holds among young fans with the power of the scarcity-driven online economy. During its Nike show, the company awarded special HQ-themed Nike Air Max 270s — packaged in what Rogowsky called “an HQ-patterned capsule” — to the game’s winners as a surprise bonus. The Price Is Right may have inspired decades’ worth of fan-made merch in its heyday, but it never quite penetrated the world of fashion. That HQ and Nike went there is a remarkable development in the world of tech branding, similar to that of Bitcoin. By collaborating with Nike on a physical product, the startup is aligning itself with the same ravenous, hyperconnected online market that supports rare sneakers and Kylie Jenner lip kits.
Wednesday’s Ready Player One game didn’t have a collector’s item to go with its $250,000 prize, but HQ found other ways to display the movie. At the very start of the show, Rogowsky gave its director, Steven Spielberg, the pun treatment he usually reserves for himself. (“Aka the Spiel McCoy, aka Spiely Dan, aka Stevie Flicks, aka ASAP Bird, aka Cardi B-roll, aka the Wizard of Jaws, aka Savage Private Ryan, aka the Man of Your Dreamworks, aka Indiana Phones and the Last HQ-sade.”) During the quiz portion of the game, he paused every five questions to award successful players with animated virtual keys, in reference to an item that Ready Player One’s main character searches for in the virtual OASIS. (One of those keys provided players with an extra life, to be used in a future game.) All in all, I counted 21 explicit mentions of the film, but that’s not including less obvious references Rogowsky tucked into his banter between questions. Though I was no richer at the end of the game than when I started, I walked away from it with an incredibly vivid picture of Ready Player One’s cinematic universe.
HQ wants advertisers to know that if you quiz with it, your brand will be the undisputed star of the show. And more than that, the app will incentivize millions of users to study upcoming advertisers to improve their chances of winning. For now, this means the startup may be somewhat selective about which brands its plans to feature. But it’s not out of the question to imagine less sexy sponsorships like Prudential or Capital One sneaking into a question.
As Rogowsky alluded to at the beginning of Wednesday night’s show, there are plenty of parallels between Ready Player One and HQ. Like protagonist Wade Watts and his peers, HQ players want distraction from their lives. They’re also competing for fame and fortune in an immersive digital environment. But the movie and the game diverge at one essential point. In seeking control of the OASIS, Watts goes up against an evil, power-hungry multinational corporation. HQ participants are instead hooked into a game whose content is dictated by the likes of Warner Bros., Nike, or whatever extremely rich company comes along next.