Trivial Matters

By Ronn Friedlander

Last Tuesday, Aeronaut Virtual India Trivia hit over 850 participants. This was by far the biggest trivia night we’ve ever had–but it wasn’t always this big! Today’s Indie Trivia was built on layers of trivia improvements that go back farther than I know, built on the shoulders of pub trivia giants. But I can tell our story from where we first entered the trivia scene.

The seed of Aeronaut Indie Trivia was planted before Aeronaut was even a concept. It was 2010, I was a grad student at MIT, and I’d recently discovered the Thirsty Ear student bar. Every Wednesday night, they’d have student-run trivia there and it was awesome. I became a regular, and I’d meet up with other grad students to play fairly regularly. I’d gone to a handful of Stump trivias and Geeks Who Drink, and even a few other independently run trivias, but the Thirsty Ear one was my favorite. The questions were TOUGH! I guess that’s what you get when you have a room full of MIT grad students. But what I really liked was the creativity that went into each round. I still remember some favorites from a decade ago: There was a question where the host compressed famous cartoon characters into a series of one-dimensional images (just rows of colors, really) and you had to guess who they were; There were the Google Trends graphs where you had to guess the search term; There was the tiebreaker where we had to fill up one beer pitcher to get just enough beer to fill a smaller pitcher without spilling (I guess this was more spatial perception than trivia). These ideas were definitely out of the box. They used different types of media and reflected the enthusiasm of the hosts. The style of this trivia game would eventually form the basis for Aeronaut’s overall trivia concept–one that prizes not just correct answers, but well crafted questions and the fun of the game.

Promo board for our first-ever Trivia night!

Aeronaut had its grand opening on June 21, 2014, but at first we were only open Thursdays through Sundays. By the end of that year, we expanded our hours to include Tuesdays, and we decided to host a trivia night for the first time on December 2, 2014. We had recently installed projectors and a sound system, so we encouraged hosts to use audio and video questions for a multimedia experience. I reached out to some folks who had run some excellent trivia at MIT to test out the first night. Things went pretty well and we experienced decent turnout. The trivia was a bit heavy on calculus questions, so we made a note of it and adjusted. Trivia was independently hosted by volunteers right from the beginning, hence “Indie Trivia.” We wanted our trivia to reflect the interests and creativity of our community, so this seemed like the best way to achieve that. Anyone who goes to a trivia night knows that there are always attendees who think they could do a better job of hosting. By sourcing our hosts from the attendees, we would give them the ability to write their own questions and exhibit their trivia prowess. We started getting interest from more new hosts and began to fill in the schedule. 

At first, it wasn’t easy to keep new hosts in the rotation. We found ourselves scrambling to find people on short notice. I had to keep a set of backup questions at the ready in case I needed to be a last-minute host. But over time, we started having more people attending and signing up to host. Within a year, we regularly had lines on Tuesday nights because we were hitting capacity. We eventually started booking hosts several months out, at times holding off on new bookings due to oversubscription. We found ourselves hosting upwards of 30+ teams in a night. We had to tell the hosts to make sure to have help for scoring since there were so many teams. We created an eight-page guide for our hosts so they knew what to expect and how to prepare. The momentum continued to build and by 2017 we won our first Best of Boston award. Aeronaut Indie Trivia continued to have a loyal following, and since then we’ve become an institution. We won our second Best of Boston award in 2019!

Best of Boston 2019!

We were riding high until mid-March 2020 rolled around, but it soon became clear that due to COVID-19 things were about to change. Governor Baker announced the closure of bars and restaurants beginning on Tuesday, March 17. We had closed and canceled trivia that week, and we were scrambling to figure out how to adapt our business to this changing situation. But one thing that we quickly realized was that as a community institution it was critically important to maintain our connection to the community. This was important for our regulars who needed something to occupy them and to maintain our own sanity and sense of optimism in this crazy time. We decided to keep running trivia nights at their usual 8pm Tuesday slot, but using a virtual platform. It seemed like the type of event that we could adapt to a webinar format. Not only could we keep people engaged, but we could provide a much needed source of entertainment to livingroom-bound members of our community. Society as we once knew it had changed, but we wanted to make sure there would still be Tuesday Indie Trivia.

It turned out that running virtual trivia was more complicated than regular taproom trivia. It ended up entailing a complete rebuild of our systems. We needed a system for submitting answers, which cofounder Dan cooked up. We needed a website, tech-savvy hosts and team of people to help score and moderate the Zoom webinars. The first week, we had over 300 attendees. We quickly had to increase our Zoom webinar capacity so we could accept more people. By week two, we had over 700 participants and over 200 teams. Next we needed systems to automate answer grading, since we had to grade over 10,000 answers per game. Dan stepped it up again. Since our trivia is open to the entire digital community this inevitably meant trolls would submit mean comments, so we needed moderators. Now we have a system to accommodate up to 1000 trivia players each week. Behind the scenes we have an 8-person mission control to handle hosting, scoring, moderating and managing other issues. It’s a ton of work, but we are happy to keep it running! We’ve received an outpouring of messages of support and gratitude for keeping this series alive through the pandemic–and for that we are thankful and humbled.

Having people play from home has allowed trivia to grow to many times what we could accommodate in the taproom. A few months ago we never could have imagined we’d reinvent trivia to an at-home virtual experience–but here we are. The pandemic, in all its ugliness, has also turned out to be a mother of invention. It’s also forced us to carefully consider what we care about most, and for us trivia buffs, that might be community, friends and having something fun to look forward to each week. There’s nothing trivial about that.

Ronn Friedlander is the CSO and a co-founder at Aeronaut. The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original author, and they do not necessarily represent those of Aeronaut Brewing Co.