Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Arguably, the single biggest innovation in the sport of cycling in the last decade has been the introduction of “virtual cycling” or indoor cycling on a stationary bike where the rider powers his or her digital cycling persona over a racecourse in a video game.
It is done using a smart bike, smart trainer, or power meter pedals that transfer and translate power and/or speed data via BlueTooth, Ant+, or wired protocol to the computing hardware such as a PC, Mac, or mobile device.
Speed is calculated based on the riders entered weight, elevation changes, and other course variables. The harder the cyclist pedals, the faster he or she moves in the game. The most popular virtual cycling platform is Zwift, currently boasting over 500,000 users.
The Zwift platform offers hundreds of miles of courses all over the world, including routes in London, New York, Innsbruck, Richmond, and even the 2019 UCI world championship course in Yorkshire, England. Cyclists can ride the chosen route on demand or can participate in any of the many races hosted throughout the day.
Zwift currently charges a $14.99 per month subscription fee. The required hardware, such as the power meter pedals or smart trainer, costs anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, excluding the computer or mobile device.
The UCI and Zwift
While Zwift has continued to grow its user base over the last couple of years, its acceptance in the cycling community has fluctuated between that of a novelty item to a tool to alleviate the boredom of indoor cycling during the winter months. But, that appears to be changing. In late September 2019 a representative of Zwift announced a new partnership with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s international governing body. Although specific details were not released, the gist is that UCI will soon sanction events on the Zwift platform.
The UCI undoubtedly has kept an eye on Zwift (and likely other similar platforms) over the last two years. Zwift commercials have played during broadcasts of the Tour de France and other cycling events, and professional cyclists have been featured prominently in those commercials.
Based on the recent announcement, it is clear that the UCI now views Zwift as more than just a video game. That may be due to a variety of factors including the growth of Zwift’s user base, the training value to cyclists, and perhaps most importantly, the explosion of esports throughout the world. Just as with other esports, the potential success of virtual cycling as an esport hinges on one primary factor: accessibility.
Even though the equipment required is slightly more expensive than, for example, a modern gaming console or gaming PC, it is still in a price range that can be afforded by most cyclists. (Cyclists in general have an income 30% to 40% higher than the average median income in the United States.)
More importantly however, virtual cycling as an esport makes competing much more accessible and much, much less costly. A competitive amateur cyclist might do an average of four or five events per year, most typically within a day’s drive from their home. Entry fees can be expensive. Gas can be expensive. Hotel rooms can be expensive.
Using a platform such as Zwift, cyclists can compete daily, or even multiple times per day from the confines of his or her own home, if he or she has the legs for it. With 500,000 other subscribers scattered throughout the globe serious competition can be found nearly 24 hours per day, all for that nominal fee of less than $15 per month.
Zwift got a head start in the world of esports with the formation of its “KISS Super League” earlier this year. From Zwift.com:
As the premier global online training and racing platform for amateur and pro cyclists alike, we are extremely excited to unveil the new KISS Super League. The KISS Super League is the first dedicated esports competition featuring professional cycling teams which will be held exclusively on Zwift. Audiences can expect to see thrilling events where pros and amateurs push serious watts as they race for the win.
A logical assumption is that the new UCI/Zwift partnership could be an extension of the KISS Super League into a sanctioned UCI competition. Or, the UCI will use the Super League as a model on which to base sanctioned competition for its own professional and amateur virtual cycling events.
If it works other national and regional governing bodies may follow suit, and soon virtual cycling might become its own discipline along with road racing, mountain biking, track racing, BMX, and cyclocross. Under the umbrella of USA Cycling or NICA (the National Interscholastic Cycling Association), virtual cycling might even find its way into competitions at the collegiate or high school level.
The Growth of Esports
Esports are now a multi-billion dollar business. The definition of an “esport” is open to debate, but generally speaking, an esport is any video game competition that draws spectators. Typically, spectators watch events on streaming platforms such as Twitch or YouTube. According to Newzoo, 380 million people worldwide will watch esports in 2019.
Today, the most popular esports games include Fortnite, Overwatch, League of Legends, and Rocket League, as well as those based on real sports such as Madden 2019, NBA 2K, FIFA 2019, or Gran Turismo Sport.
Professional esports players can earn millions per year in prize money, endorsements, and sponsorships. Brands are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to attach their names to esports, and some esports events are drawing viewership close to that of the Super Bowl. Television networks are getting into the esports broadcasting game now too.
There is significant activity at all levels of esports. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) was organized in 2016 to manage college esports competitions. It currently represents over 200 schools and 5000 student e-athletes. One company, PlayVS, has recently raised over $100 million in venture capital to build out a platform to manage just high school esports. Nearly half of all high schools in the United States have already registered to participate.
Only a handful of isolated Zwift events have been streamed to date, and they have drawn only a limited audience. But, that may change as the UCI, and perhaps other governing bodies, such as USA Cycling, get involved. Fans may soon get to watch their favorite riders compete on Zwift platform. Maybe even a bigger draw, fans may soon get to race against their favorite professional cyclists on courses throughout the world.
None of this is to say the virtual cycling will replace live cycling. Most cyclists will say that live riding is their first choice. But, virtual cycling provides a nice complement, as well as a nice supplement, and many cyclists are improving their overall riding fitness using platforms like Zwift. Some who live in cold or wet weather climates may have few other choices to stay fit.
With so few details available it is not yet clear how well the UCI/Zwift partnership will pan out. There will certainly be a few challenges. The announcement of the effort should at minimum have marketing value to both organizations. Zwift should bring more cycling fans to the UCI, and the UCI should bring more subscribers to Zwift.
But, if the intent it is to bring quality, fair, and sanctioned amateur and professional cycling competitions to an esports platform, there will be several considerations.
First, while the Zwift platform offers the rider a few camera views, a simplified “spectator view” to make the competitions more viewer friendly might be helpful. This could be somewhat automated so that whoever is tasked with managing the video stream would not have to manually or continually manipulate the camera shots.
Many esports are challenged with providing a good spectator view. Depending upon the particular game the competitions can appear confusing and hectic to a non-player. A virtual bike race might seem straightforward, but a cluttered mass of dozens of avatars riding in the game might not be very interesting or easy to follow.
Recorded streams of the KISS Super League events can currently be viewed on YouTube. They provide a good example of what professionally produced video productions can look like using the current Zwift platform. But they display a level of production skill and savvy that might not be available to many event promoters. The whole idea behind the virtual events is that they are easy to deliver and manage.
Second, if the UCI-sanctioned virtual cycling competitions are designed to take place at decentralized locations, there will need to be some sort of controls to ensure an even and fair playing field.
Unfortunately, cheating is not uncommon in the world of cycling, and there are many ways to cheat in a traditional bike race. (Just ask Lance Armstrong.) Riders can take performance-enhancing substances or even apply “mechanical doping” techniques, such using a small electrical motor in the cranks or wheel hubs. These methods could be used in a virtual cycling event too. (At least virtual riders can’t gain advantage by hitching a ride in a taxi or on a train!)
But, virtual cycling opens up a whole new world of potential cheating methods. The Zwift platform itself allows the rider to input any weight that he or she wants: the lower the weight, the higher the power-to-weight ratio (typically shown in Watts per kg) that is used to calculate bike speed. And, many of the hardware devices that are used to measure the cyclist’s power, such as power meter pedals, allow the configuration of calibration factors that can over report, in some cases very significantly, the actual power applied.
It’s evident that some riders are already experimenting with such methods. Zwift cyclists have reported witnessing other riders passing them on the virtual courses at speeds estimated at 80 to 100 miles per hour!
There are other ways a virtual cyclist might cheat too. Recently, a British rider was stripped of his e-cycling national championship after it was determined he had not legitimately completed one of the required Zwift riding challenges that awarded the fastest bike in the game. Instead, the rider used an Ant+ simulator (without actually pedaling) to cheat the system to earn the bike.
Managing the Competitions
The UCI and Zwift may intend to initially offer sanctioned races only as charity or promotional events and therefore might tolerate a nominal amount of cheating. But, if there are prizes, money, or official rankings involved, the user base will likely demand some sort of quality control.
Equipment may need to be standardized for sanctioned competition, either by brand or by functional requirement. For example, feedback trainers may be required that force increased resistance when riding uphill on a course.
Additional controls might also include the implementation of a virtual rider certification process, perhaps managed by the regional governing bodies. Or, there might be “certified riding centers” similar, for example, to the thousands of Prometric certified testing centers (used for professional licensing exams and college entry exams) that operate worldwide.
Zwift might also have to expose rider weights and power meter calibration factors to ensure fair competitions, as well as implement a process to address performance outliers and complaints from other riders.
These types of protocols will likely develop quickly in the coming months as more riders compete in sanctioned virtual races. Cycling’s governing bodies may have no choice if they want to own the virtual cycling niche. All indications are that esports will continue to grow, along with the demand for cycling-related esports events.
Note: Both Zwift and the UCI were contacted for more information regarding schedules, rules, and eligibility for sanctioned virtual cycling events. Their responses had yet to be received at the time of publication.