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September 28, 2020

Scotty Survivor Puts CMU Spin on Reality Show

By Rachel M. Latsko

Three “Survivor” super fans separated by the pandemic have turned their love of the reality television franchise into “Scotty Survivor,” complete with Pittsburgh-themed tribes and challenges captured remotely over Zoom.

“Scotty Survivor: Steel City” challenges 18 students — from freshmen to Ph.Ds. across every school and college — to compete for rewards and immunity as they progressively vote out fellow players until only one student remains and wins the grand prize of a $500 Visa gift card.

This isn’t the first online or collegiate-take on the reality show franchise. Since the early 2000s, online reality games have been popular for super fans on Facebook, Discord and various reddit threads, and have made their way to college campuses, such as the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland, Northeastern University and The Ohio State University.

“College Survivor is its own unique community and experience,” said Scotty Survivor co-founder and Student Body President Govind Menon. “We’ve really benefitted from the fact that people have been doing this since 2000 in the online gaming community. We’re taking those online competitions and putting our own CMU spin on it.” 

Menon is a junior studying information systems, with minors in business administration and human-computer interaction. With the help of fellow super fan and co-founder Shane Killen, a junior in the School of Music’s vocal performance program and lead Tartan Ambassador, the duo reached out to the Office of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Civic Engagement (SLICE), which provided expertise, guidance and support to the project, securing a corporate sponsorship with Xfinity.

From there, the Student Dormitory Council (SDC) and Activities Board (AB) joined the endeavor, making Menon and Killen’s dream a reality.

Creating a Vibe: Picking the Players

One of the first contestant applications Menon and Killen received was from Vanessa Adams, a junior studying statistics and decision science from the San Francisco Bay area.

Adams quickly realized her calling was to work on the production team rather than be a contestant. She could apply years of show-watching experience to craft tribal challenges, and would also get to work alongside Menon, who shares her love of K-Pop and Survivor.

“That combination is rare in a person,” she laughed.

screen shot of a Zoom call with the three foundersShane Killen, Govind Menon and Vanessa Adams interviewed 50 applicants and challenged them with an impromptu screen test.

The trio of Menon, Killen and Adams narrowed the contestant applications down to 50 interviews. Representation across schools, genders, races and ages were important to the Scotty Survivor executives.

“We aimed to have one-third of the players be incoming first-years. We wanted to give first years the opportunity to meet new people,” said Menon, who was a first-year orientation leader this year. 

Killen said the show will help to build community among students.

“When watching other college Survivors, something that is very striking is that these people build this huge community after the game. They leave the drama in the game and they work together to produce the next season — forming this huge community,” Killen said. “We want to promote meeting new people and building this community.”

To create an optimal game show dynamic, Menon, Killen and Adams asked a variety of personal questions and challenged participants with an impromptu screen test. One question was to identify players’ gaming archetype.

“CMU seems to have lots of self-identified agents of chaos,” Adams said.

“There were very specific reasons everyone was cast this year; they are bringing something to the table that made sense for this group,” Menon said.

Two contestants who made the cut are Corey Emery and Khushi Wadhwa, who couldn’t seem more different on paper.

screen shot of a Zoom call with Khushi Wadhwa and Corey EmeryKhushi Wadhwa and Corey Emery met over Zoom as contestants.

Emery is playing to win. He is an alumnus of the Dietrich College and a current master’s degree student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute. He has a history of watching survival reality television and sees his campus connections formed over the years as a strength.

Wadhwa is a freshman in the School of Computer Science who never saw the Survivor series prior to her casting. She joined with the hopes of making new friends.

“As first-years, we’re connected by this shared experience,” Wadhwa said. “All of us know that we don’t have previous friends in the game and we’ve all dealt with the same circumstances of coming into college remotely and in quarantine.”

Creating the Challenges

Over the course of the semester, Wadhwa, Emery and their fellow contestants will compete in a variety of remote challenges testing their mental and physical capacities, such as doing puzzles, creating memes and completing physical tasks.

“The execs did a really good job at making challenges that can be completed both online and in person. It’s very equitable regardless of the fact I’m remote. I know I can do all the challenges,” Wadhwa said.

All of the contestants will be filming themselves while they’re on Zoom.

“We would never put people at risk just for good TV. If we do anything live, we will follow all protocols necessary,” Killen said.

Killen said the show pushes contestants out of their comfort zone.

“Nobody truly knows what they’re in for — even the people who have seen the show. They’re going to be pushed, physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s going to create a bond that probably none of us are expecting,” Killen said.

More Than a Game: Finding Community  

Adams is appreciative of the opportunity to connect with people remotely.

“I consider Govind and Shane my close friends now even though this all started in July. I would never have gotten to know them so deeply without this opportunity — and it’s all been remote,” Adams said.

Menon is grateful for the personal connections he’s made.

“This game has provided me with a lot of friendships. I’ve moved around a lot and the one constant in my life are these people who I’ve played these online games with. They are with you no matter where you go,” Menon said.

“This is also a time when many people are going through a lot of difficult things for a variety of reasons,” Menon added. “I hope this can be an escape and more relatable than something you watch on TV — because you may actually recognize a face or two.”

Filming started on Saturday, September 12, and will end by Thanksgiving break. From there, the production team will apply their editing skills for a tentative premiere in spring.

Stay tuned.

Follow along with Scotty Survivor: Steel City on Instagram: @scotty_survivor