A Peek Behind the SporcleCon Curtain

(Last Updated On: October 7, 2022)

With the dust finally settling on the inaugural SporcleCon, I thought it might be fun to take a peek behind the curtain of how SporcleCon came to be. There were around 650 people at this year’s event, and each of us had our unique perspective on the weekend. This blog will focus on my perspective alone as the planning lead for SporcleCon. 

The Ten Years Before

First I should introduce myself. My name is Mark Adams, and I’m the VP of Marketing at Sporcle. What became SporcleCon probably started back in 2009, when along with some friends and family, I began Motor City Trivia. It was a live trivia company in, you guessed it, Michigan. 

Quickly, it became apparent that the appeal of trivia nights wasn’t just answering questions about geography and Oscar winners. It was that we gave an outlet for human connection. My good friend and fellow Sporcle cohort Jeff calls quiz nights a form of doing something good for your mental health. At trivia night we’d spend a minute debating what the most populous city is to border the Mississippi River, then the next two chatting with our friends and families.

I became fascinated with the idea of creating these people-connecting moments across the country, but I knew we needed help. I started talking to Sporcle about sponsoring the first Battle of the Brains in 2012. Yes, while this was the inaugural SporcleCon, it was the third Battle of the Brains. And while they sponsored Battle of the Brains, Sporcle also acquired our trivia company at the same time. That went on to become Sporcle Live.

Battle of the Brains was an event I thought about early on. I remember wanting to put on a large-scale trivia event one day, and Battle of the Brains ended up being it. But Battle of the Brains was always very regional in the two years we ran it. 95% of the teams were from Michigan or Ohio. So the dream of a more significant event lived on.

SporcleCon came in to the picture five years ago. We celebrated the ten-year anniversary of Sporcle and said, “hey, it might be cool to get 50 people or so to come to Seattle (where Sporcle is headquartered) for a celebration.” We agreed in November 2017 to give SporcleCon (or TriviaCon at the time) a shot.

We landed on Vegas for the first event, set to take place April 3-5, 2020, in Las Vegas. Covid had other plans, and it was canceled weeks before it was set to take place. There was so much heartache around that as we’d put a lot of energy into it. We promised each other we’d bring it back at the appropriate time.

Early 2021

At the start of 2021, we decided to relaunch efforts and bring a fresh take to SporcleCon. In March and April of 2021, we made requests in Washington D.C. and a few other locations around the country. Since we were a first-time event, we were quickly priced out of most sites. Out of 50 potential sites, there were about 5 or 6 sites we thought we could make work.
In D.C., the Washington Hilton was not open yet, still shut down from Covid. For as bustling as the hotel was during SporcleCon, it was surreal to tour this giant space with nobody in it but me and a few workers. 

As you know, we settled on the Washington Hilton. The fact that the area is ripe with history for any trivia-loving person to take in won out. As did the fact that that region is consistently one area where we see the most Sporcle usage. We agreed to a two-year deal with the Hilton. As I write this today, I don’t know where 2024 will take place, but it can be deduced that we’ll likely move around the country.

The first visit of the Columbia Ballroom at the Washington Hilton in April 2021.

Early 2022

I reached out to Austin Rogers about helping him promote his new book. We also talked about having him involved in SporcleCon. We landed on having him be our guest host for the weekend. We enjoyed doing some events alongside Austin in the lead-up as well.

Something important to us was to make the weekend a party and a celebration. We wanted opportunities for people to break from quizzing and just let loose. Booking a band was a big part of that.

I first heard of Lawrence a while ago. I enjoy attending the free lunchtime concerts called Sonic Lunch in downtown Ann Arbor every summer. In May, they dropped the lineup, and Lawrence was on it. I put on their latest album at the time and immediately emailed them about coming to SporcleCon. I offered them Friday night or Saturday night. 

Jordan Cohen, the band’s tenor sax player and manager, wrote back within minutes about how they are big fans of Sporcle. They even had a mini-documentary to prove it. After discussions, they and we wanted them to be involved all weekend. Fun fact, in their rider, they asked for a trivia or logic puzzle in their dressing room. So, we made them two Lawrence-centric logic puzzles and created quiz playlists based on the likes/hobbies of each band member. Some Broadway quizzes for Gracie. Some New York Mets quizzes for Clyde, etc.

Lawrence closing out Friday night of SporcleCon

The Couple Weeks Before

I’ll keep this section short and tell you that the things that could go wrong went wrong. There was some panic, but always a controlled panic. This ranged from the t-shirts being printed incorrectly, a pretty major redo to the Battle of the Brains format, the Fire Marshall not approving our layouts, finding out our starting point for Trivia Hunt needed to change at the request of Washington Parks and Rec… Of course, all these things were remedied, but it was a stressful time.

Monday

Monday was pickup day! We had several MVPs on our team, but let me tell you about Paul and Lauren. Lauren, who made 100 SporcleCon candles to give to staff members, drove from Chicago to Metro Detroit to meet Paul, who was waiting with a U-Haul full of stuff that we had finally gotten out of my garage. My wife was happy to have our garage back.

Paul and Lauren drove five hours to Pittsburgh to sleep. They got up and did the final five hours to DC in the morning. They would make this same trip back after the weekend was done. They were the first ones in and the last ones out, and I’m so grateful for them for that.

The UHaul arriving to pack up for D.C.

Tuesday

After a quick flight from Detroit, I arrived at the Hilton and waited for the truck. 

This is also when I saw my first Secret Service agent. We were informed earlier in the year that we were sharing the hotel with Dr. Jill Biden and the First Ladies Luncheon on Friday. That meant we had to have our stuff in specific places at even more particular times. We had to allow our stuff to be looked at by the agents, which of course, was all fine. Many of our display items, like the big globe light in the terrace, couldn’t come out until Dr. Biden had left for the day.

The truck arrived, and the four of us on site unloaded it through loading docks, a kitchen tour, and freight elevators. We rewarded ourselves with a quick break and dinner and drinks at Lucky Buns.

Wednesday

I think what happened on Wednesday was one of my favorite moments that I’ll remember. I had gone down in the morning to start unpacking things in our office, which we later renamed the War Room. We had some helpers, but lifting, moving, and organizing was a lot. I was dirty and run down after doing this for four hours. I had a meeting scheduled with who I thought was just my contact at the hotel (shout out to A’Lyce, who is fantastic). I went up to the meeting room to see her, only to find twelve people from the Hilton in full-fledged suits ready to talk. This was the who’s who in the world of Hilton in the DC area. The first thing I said to them was, “wow, I’m very underdressed and sweaty.” But I had an agenda…

After seeing the International Ballroom for the first time on a site visit in July, I knew we needed to be in there for Battle of the Brains. The definitive history of that stage was something I wanted us all to be a part of. I banged that drum with the hotel in the weeks leading up. They kept saying no. And I get that. They wanted to rent it out instead of just handing it to us. I was very concerned about flipping the space we were in (Columbia) into the Battle of the Brains layout in under three hours.

In the meeting, I told the group one last time that we needed to be in International if there was any way to make it happen. After not much of a response, I asked in a different way. I said, “What’s in International on Saturday because so far, you’ve never said it’s being used. Just that it wasn’t available.” They said they’d discuss if they should move us down there and would let me know. An hour later, A’Lyce found me and said it worked. We were moving to International for Battle of the Brains. 

The jubilation of that moment quickly turned into needing to call Lawrence about if they were cool to move stuff, making new seating charts, new staff assignments, etc. It was all worth it. It took Lawrence three hours to set everything up and soundcheck and this now meant they had to do it all twice when they weren’t planning to. Jordan from Lawrence told me on the phone, “we’re going to find a way to make it happen.”

Wednesday night, a group of us rented a minivan (later upgraded to an Escalade) and headed for Baltimore to see the Orioles take on the Tigers. I’m trying to see every MLB stadium at some point, so I was happy to cross number twenty off my list. What a beautiful park Camden is!

Camden Yards

Thursday

Printing. Cutting. Multiple runs to Office Depot. Organizing. Getting ready for the 5 PM all clear to begin setting up! This was what Thursday was all about. Starting to see the space transform into a reality was amazing. To this point, it’s just lived in our heads for several months.

The real excitement for me came during the registration at 9 PM. Seeing people come to the table excited to be there was rewarding.

The first look at the giant orange Sporcle Globe

Friday

We had to do most of our setup on Friday morning. The first big snafu of the weekend happened when we brought out every laptop for Conquest and Eliminator, only to find that about 25% of them held their charge. We also had to reset the clocks on each one.

The Crew met for lunch at a Mexican restaurant down the road. This allowed most of them to be out of the way during the hustle and bustle of the First Ladies Luncheon.

At 1:30, we did an entire team walkthrough. This was the first time my emotions got to me, as it hit me at that moment how grateful I was that these 60 people took time away from family, arranged childcare, spent money, took time off other jobs, etc., just to help fulfill this vision. Seeing my childhood best friend there with the staff, even though he doesn’t work for Sporcle, there to help was also a sight I won’t forget. He knew we had people dropping out, so he jumped on a plane to help.

The rest of my Friday lacked any real excitement, which meant things were going well. In the first few hours, we learned a ton about ways to make events like Conquest and Eliminator better and more efficient. But overall, seeing people having fun, hugging, laughing, and feeling smart together was just a thrill. 

My other favorite moments from Friday were walking a few people one by one down to International to give them a sneak peek of Friday. Hearing people be in awe as they opened the door was heartwarming. One key Crew Member told me that they cried when they walked in and saw it.

I did my last thing for the evening and caught the last three songs from Lawrence. And even after they were done, a big group of Crew members was still asking how to help. 

Snapped a selfie with Clyde Lawrence after showing him the International Ballroom. And then bed at 1:30 felt like a success!

Clyde and I after Friday night

Saturday Morning/Afternoon

The Planning Crew met for breakfast to talk about the day prior and make changes to the day. Each person on this committee is fabulous for different reasons, but this particular 30 minutes was this collaborative yet divide and conquer approach to improve the airplane while it was flying. 

I want to mention that group of people I’d go into battle with any day.

Jason Sterlacci – the amount of content created and curated by this man will never be fully understood. He was making edits to Battle of the Brains a couple of hours before we started. The man has a heart of gold, and it was on full display in every conversation we ever had about the event.

Holly Minshull – I told people Holly saved the event. And she did. She came in and questioned everything in a way only she could and led the Crew with such calm and extraordinary leadership all weekend. She had at least two nights (that I know of) where she slept less than two hours.

Tim Allen – there was one person I could just hand anything to, and it was Tim. Content issue – Tim. Communication issue – Tim. Player experience issue – Tim. He’s as versatile as they come, and that’s hard to find.

Meredith Elliott – Meredith came to me in the summer and said she was able to help. I jumped over that opportunity as nobody carries themselves more professionally than Meredith. If Meredith tells you something will get done, it will. She worked tirelessly with our engineers to make every game format work in our Digital Answering System for the weekend.

Diana Hsu – Diana took the lead on many logistics. From creating shopping lists, working with the hotel, coming to DC for planning sessions, etc. She was an asset to the team that can’t be understated.

Saturday on the floor was intense as so much was happening at once. Any minor issues were immediately addressed. It was such a contrast to see the lively atmosphere in events like Game Show Gauntlet and Smartass Trivia compared to the people just locked in on their LearnedLeague Live answers. We wanted to build a weekend of events that appealed to every type of trivia player, and I think at that moment, I knew we had.

Saturday’s geography pub quiz

Battle of the Brains

I spent 30 minutes freaking out that the latest changes to the Battle of the Brains slide show wouldn’t download to my computer. We finally averted that crisis, held a staff meeting in the ballroom, and waited for doors to open.

The Battle of the Brains content was so much fun to put together and a genuinely collaborative effort. Many of the rounds we had saved from our Vegas event that didn’t get off. The dice round and playing cards round, to name a couple.

I was so happy to see so many of our hosts be able to host on that stage. They all took that job so seriously that even one host afterward was in near tears because she mispronounced a name, even though she rehearsed it in her head 20 times.

The mashup round with Lawrence was a true joy to work through. I was on vacation in July when Clyde first sent his ideas. We offered some simple ideas, but he was set on doing something more creative. And they succeeded.

The playing cards round was also something we were excited about. We wanted to do something tangible, and that’s why the book rounds and playing cards existed. There’s something about holding trivia answers in your hand. The lettering of 144 playing card sets was less fun.

In the end, I was so happy to see a group of random strangers be in the money. It showed me how amazing the trivia community is that so many of you were willing to play with people you’ve never met. We had nearly ten teams of complete strangers playing on Saturday night.

Before I left my post for the night at the soundboard, I grabbed a copy of the run of show for the First Ladies Luncheon as my official souvenir. 

My poorly taken selfie at the start of Battle of the Brains

Sunday

I told staff earlier in the week that Sunday would be a breeze if we could get through Battle of the Brains unscathed. And we were right. There were indeed things we’ll do differently on the final day next year, but overall it went just fine. A big part of this was the professionalism of the BP Titans crew in handling their event.

And the dogs. Petey and Furends was the final charity we added to the Choose Your Colors event. And they offered to bring their pups to the event, so we gladly took them up and made a trivia event out of it. Another fun fact – someone who used to work at Sporcle once owned one of the puppies used in the cinematic classic Air Buddies.

As the Con concluded, we had Crew members showing up out of the woodwork again to help pack up and load the truck.

It was these final moments that I’ll remember the most. First up was Milan stopping me, who had flown in from Serbia. The amount of hoops this man had to jump through just to come is the type of stuff we Americans take for granted. Trivia Hunt – that was Milan. Crack the Safe – that was Milan. Testing Conquest quizzes – that was Milan. Creating his own Sporcle Board Game – that was Milan. He stopped me at the door after almost everyone was gone, telling me he didn’t want to cry, but thanking me for bringing him to the US. In reality, it’s me who needed to be thanking him. I hugged him and told him thank you, that I was proud of him and that I wanted to help him with his next bucket list item, which is to bring his family next time. For the record, his daughter ranked the Butterfinger bar he took home for her a 9.5 / 10.

Most of the Crew went to dinner afterward and exchanged stories from the weekend. A group of us moved back to the hotel bar to end the night and ultimately close down the bar. This is a night I believe I’ll take away as one of my career’s best moments, just because of the nature of the conversations that were had. The number of tearful conversations had with people about needing something like this weekend after what the pandemic did to all of us was profound. I knew we’d all thrive in this setting, but I didn’t expect to reach this level. This group cares so much about putting out good work and supporting each other. 

I’m so fortunate to work with these people, and I’m even luckier to work in a community as great as the trivia one. Reading the survey feedback this week has really solidified that. So, if you’ve read this far, I thank you for coming and helping me realize a dream I’ve had. The fact that you spent time and money to come is not lost on us. You have my utmost respect and appreciation for that. I hope you’ll come back and watch us do it even better. Thank you for indulging me in this post. Til next time…

Milan and I at the end of the weekend

-Mark

 

About the Author:

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Mark is the current Vice President of Entertainment at Sporcle. He founded Motor City Trivia back in 2009, which is what Sporcle Events is today. After hosting and attending thousands of pub quizzes over the last decade plus, he likes to write about some of his favorite trivia tidbits.

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