It was a Friday evening on the first T-shirt weather weekend of the year, but almost everyone in the small city of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, was indoors. Families and friends hunkered down in basements or camped out in attics. Stores on Main Street were shuttered, black-out curtains hung in the windows. And everyone’s radio was tuned to the local college station, 90FM, where question after question was being read live over the air.
The occasion was the start of an annual tradition in Stevens Point: Trivia, the self-proclaimed world’s biggest trivia contest, in which thousands of players compete on hundreds of teams to answer eight questions every hour, for 54 hours straight. Unlike in other trivia competitions, teams here are free to leverage any resource they want — including Google. As a result, in recent years the competition has turned into a showcase for some of the world’s most skilled internet users.
Before arriving in Stevens Point in mid-April for what would be 48th installment of the contest, I wondered how hard a trivia competition could be if use of the internet was allowed. For me, a 25-year-old who works online all day, it was self-evident that every fact is just a few search queries away. But Trivia proved me wrong.
“Some of our team members have spent the entire day at the grocery store taking pictures of cereal boxes.”
When I met Jim Oliva, the organizer, host, and question writer of Trivia, at 90FM on the eve of the contest, he had just finished telling a student DJ not to play any more “pussy tracks” — that is, any song featuring a synthesizer. Showing me around the radio station, Oliva, who is known as The Oz during Trivia week, launched into a story that encapsulates his process for writing material for the competition. A few years ago a volunteer at 90FM looked at a question Oliva had written and wondered if it was too vague. Oliva replied, “That's not my problem. My problem is to write it. Their problem is to figure out what I'm asking.”
After a question is read over the air, teams have the length of two short songs (roughly five minutes) to call in their answer to the radio station. That sounds simple enough, except that hundreds of other teams are tying up the phone lines trying to do the exact same thing. But before that, contestants face the challenge of deciphering what the questions are even asking. Oliva prides himself on coming up with questions that aren’t easily Googleable — partially because they’re not always coherent, partially because they’re incredibly detailed. A sample question: “Moses is a cool character and a friend of the Harper kids. Moses has what he calls his Coolmandments. What is Coolmandment number one?” (The answer: “Don’t see a movie with your parents.”)
There’s no cash prize for first place in the contest. Just trophies for the top 10 teams and bragging rights until the following spring. Which makes it all the more astonishing that some teams have spent thousands of dollars collecting expensive reference books and countless hours taking notes on answers to potential trivia questions.
“What do you do when you go to a movie?” Oliva asked me. The answer is that I just watch, but before I could get the words out, he explained that to be competitive in Stevens Point means to take notes during movies. And not just notes on plot lines or the names of the main characters; you need to take notes on the brand of milk that’s sitting on a table in a particular scene or the occupation of a secondary character that’s revealed in a throwaway line. Precisely the kinds of detail that might exist online in a tweet or a comment on a message board, but are nearly impossible to find without the right key phrase to type into Google. That’s why the teams that have had the most success in the contest in recent years are the teams that are the most internet savvy.
For decades, Trivia was dominated by a team called Network, which has won first place 22 different times since 1975. From the inside of Network’s headquarters, it’s obvious why the 35-member team has had so much success. Every inch of the room, an L-shaped basement belonging to one of its members’ parents, is filled with reference materials, old magazines, DVDs, records, retro advertisements, and packaging of limited edition foods, candies, and soft drinks. In one corner, there’s a shelf stacked with all but one issue of TV Guide dating back to 1948. Up against another wall there’s a library-style card catalog cabinet containing tens of thousands of handwritten notes on index cards, all pertaining to TV and film and organized by subject matter.
Network’s organized hoarding gave it an edge in the early days of the contest, but the system eventually buckled. “In the golden age of this contest it was a combination of competing and collecting in a social environment,” said Barry Heck, whose parents own the basement where those collections are stored. “Unfortunately, nowadays it's a lot about searching on the internet.”
One team, made up almost entirely of strangers from all over the world, represents a sea-change in the way the contest is played. In the past, being good at Trivia meant tracking down obscure reference books. Now it means trawling the internet for clues in places that others might not think to look, and that’s where Trivial Fursuit excels. “We are not above visiting questionable web sites if it means getting the question right,” one member, a woman wearing a cat onesie, told me at the team’s headquarters on the first full day of the contest.
Over the past seven years, Trivial Fursuit has grown from a handful of players listening to the contest through a delayed livestream to a well-oiled machine with upwards of 160 members mostly in their 20s, all connected through chat rooms across time zones. Having one of the largest, if not the largest team in the contest, gives Trivial Fursuit the advantage of being able to assign shifts to some players while others rest and refresh during the 54 hour marathon. So does its use of technology.
Every year Oliva asks questions related to breakfast, which means teams need to know the slogans and designs of every cereal box, bacon brand, and pancake mix if they want to do well. Historically, players have purchased scores of these items and pulled them out when needed. But teams like Trivia Fursuit are uploading photos of cereal boxes to their own private databases, which allows them to search for clues more efficiently. “I can say for certain that some of our team members have spent the entire day at the grocery store taking pictures of cereal boxes,” said Raymond Neupert of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Ever since forming in seven years ago, Trivial Fursuit has competed with varying degrees of success, peaking at fourth place. This year, Neupert guaranteed me another top 10 finish for his team.
Early into the second day of competition, Trivia Fursuit sat atop the leaderboard. It was a surprise to many in Stevens Point, including the members of the team itself. When the radio station announced that Trivia Fursuit was in first place, someone knocked over a beer in the celebration. “We could finish in 100th place and I'd be just as happy as as I am now,” one member, Justin Clarke, told me. “But that being said, we have a shot this year. A legitimate shot.” Halfway through the contest Trivia Fursuit was surpassed by Festivus for the Rest of Us and Dad’s Computers, respectively. In the end, the team placed third, its best showing yet.
The world’s biggest trivia contest has always been a competition of resourcefulness. But the definition of resourcefulness has shifted from what you can accumulate to what you can find. A comprehensive collection of notes, magazines, and ephemera can’t compete with IMDB, fan-run Wiki sites, and the ability to torrent movies on the fly. In some ways, the internet as the great equalizer has lived up to its promise in at least one arena.