Zwift’s push into competitive cycling could change esports
The cyclists started the 55-kilometer race in Central Park, so tight that it was sometimes difficult for spectators to read the countries written on the back of their shirts. Riders from around the world pedaled rapidly down the pristine tree-lined path through the park before heading onto a futuristic-looking road that took them out of the park and through what looked like the sky. They passed skyscrapers and a yellow taxi floated along the airway. Spectators stood scattered on the sidelines, watching the runners as they glided down the sunny park course. But none of this was real. The fans and course were rendered digitally, and the riders were avatars representing the world’s most talented e-cyclists. They were competing on Feb. 26 for the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) World Cycling Championship title on Zwift, a part-gaming, part-fitness platform that lets people race on stationary bikes from their homes.
As the avatars, customized from hairstyle to sneakers, moved through a reimagined and digitally rendered New York City, a picture-in-picture appeared on screen, spinning through sweating cyclists in bedrooms, garages and basements, wearing jerseys similar to those worn by their digital avatars. Men and women raced equal distances in two separate heats on the same course, each hoping to win a rainbow world champion jersey – a digital version for their avatars and a physical version for them – and 8,000.4 000 or 2000 euros for first, second or third place, respectively. Nearly 10,000 people watched the race live on YouTube as Loes Adegeest of the Netherlands crossed the finish line to win the Zwift Women’s Championship race. Australian Jay Vine won the men’s race later in the day. Over 112,000 people have since watched the YouTube stream. (Zwift doesn’t have final streaming numbers on different platforms yet.)
Championship races are part of Zwift’s steady rise in the cannon of serious cycling. Esports, traditional video games like fortnite at the more physically demanding Zwift, have found enthusiastic audiences that continue to grow in size. fortniteThe 2019 World Cup attracted around 40 million competitors who competed for a prize of $3 million. But Zwift is a little different, though fortnite and Zwift players can compete from their bedroom, the app fills the niche between a physical sport and a video game. Zwift doesn’t just want to be a game, it also has ambitions in the world of competitive cycling. February’s World Championship was a manifestation of these ambitions: not only did they gain approval from the UCI, cycling’s world governing body, to stage races like the World Championship digitally, but they also associated with USA Cycling to organize races. The company has even attracted talented cyclists like Ashleigh Moolman Passio, a South African road cyclist who has competed in the last three Summer Olympics. (She won the first Women’s World Championship on Zwift in 2020.) He also created new stars from his pool of runners.
Jacquie Godbe, who finished ninth in the women’s race this year, competed from what she described as her “cave of pain” – a second bedroom in her Riverside, Calif. home with the air conditioning running. A former triathlete, Godbe said she got an indoor trainer, a piece of equipment that allows her to convert her road bike to a stationary bike, in early 2020. The trainer also simulates the feeling of road running for Zwift races in mimicking the slopes seen on screen, so she feels the challenge as her avatar climbs. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, cut off from their gym and teammates, she and her husband discovered Zwift and started rolling. They rode stationary bikes together in their old apartment in Chicago, opening the windows to let in the freezing winter air. Through these races, she became an up-and-coming e-runner and competed in Zwift’s USA Cycling Series before joining the first world championship race on Zwift in 2020.
E-racing allows Godbe to race competitively; otherwise, she says, she’d just be too busy with her medical residency to ride. She doesn’t have time off to go to the races because she can’t afford to waste precious days and weekends. Yet her training schedule is grueling: she goes to bed at 7:15 p.m. and wakes up at 3:15 a.m. “That’s really why I’m still able to compete at this level,” she said of Zwift’s flexibility. “I finished a race 100% and went for a shift the next day or the same evening.” This is the main appeal of the sport: not only are esports flexible, but they also allow competitors who don’t have the time or money to compete at elite levels to participate. (Riders can use their own road bikes and, like Godbe, connect them to trainers, which cost between a few hundred dollars and around $1,200. They can also purchase smart bikes directly from Zwift for around $3,000. .)
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Since its launch in 2014, the multiplayer platform has quietly reached around 4 million users, according to Chris Snook, director of public relations at Zwift. Riders can cycle through fantasy worlds and certain gamified power-ups, or boosts that allow them to move faster for a brief period, and also earn badges or participate in challenges to unlock prizes, while competing with runners from all over the world. But like road racing, they can strategize and use another rider’s drag, cycling behind them to fight against less resistance. Even though the avatars seem to glide along the street with ease, this game is far from effortless, and the riders pedal at full force, “feeling” the terrain of the course.
It’s that blend of traditional personal fitness with the entertainment factor of a video game that Zwift fulfills. Live streaming on Twitch and YouTube has given viewers more ways to connect with esports, which has helped increase the value of the industry. In 2021, the global esports market was worth more than $1 billion, according to Statista, and the global esports audience had reached 474 million people. Plus, there’s the metaverse, where gaming should be central and a catalyst for growth. Zwift itself has been a metaverse company since its inception, although its creators didn’t initially use that word to describe it, Snook said.
Zwift strives to be taken seriously as a competitive sporting event. During the pandemic, it began to organize its most serious competitions, including a modified, distance version of the Tour de France in 2020 where men and women could compete in separate races. They even replicated one of the toughest climbs of the race on Mont Ventoux.
“We’re definitely a company with the level of ambition to see this in the Olympics at some point in the future,” Snook said. But there will be no gold medals for electric cycling at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. In 2018, the International Olympic Committee decided it would be “premature” to even discuss the inclusion of esports . Yet the UCI takes racing integrity seriously. According to Snook, competitors had to weigh themselves before the race (the trainer is weight-calibrated) and undergo random testing for performance-enhancing drugs, both supervised by the UCI.
Like other road races, Zwift is always a team sport, USA Cycling director of esports Matt Gardiner told Morning Brew. As team leader, Gardiner chats with riders on Discord. He can use Zwift to click on different competitors to see their heart rate, attempt to gauge their resistance, and relay that information to the team. In addition to chatting on Discord, runners often train and compete on their own.
“It’s a very different mental game,” he said. “There are no fans cheering you on, there are fans blowing on you, because you need to cool off. It’s very mental.”
Shayna Powless, one of Team USA’s riders, said she started using Zwift for indoor training. It’s useful in the flat landscape of Jacksonville, Florida, where she lives, because using the trainer she can simulate inclines in races with Zwift. She doesn’t feel the wind in her face or her speed as she pedals competitively inside her home, but she insists the e-bike is still tough. “I suffer more during Zwift races than in actual races for the most part, just because in Zwift races it’s kind of everything from start to finish,” she said.
Godbe said she hopes e-cycling gains legitimacy, but it’s still early days. It can be hard to comprehend the serious athleticism involved while watching the avatars roll seamlessly through one-dimensional courses. But Godbe hopes that will change soon. She thinks the inclusion of webcams, showing cyclists around the world huffing and puffing in their own caves of pain, or watching people race in person will help (she has competed in front of her family before). “I think it allows you to see the intensity they’re going through, because when you see it on a webcam, the light isn’t always perfect, you can’t hear the breathing, you can’t see the sweating,” she said. “Up close and personal, it really helps you appreciate the intensity that everyone brings to the pitch.”
As the Women’s Championship race drew to a close, Adegeest peddled from fourth place and took the lead on the final incline. The excitement was palpable and the race announcer spoke faster and louder. As his avatar crossed the finish line, the picture-in-picture showed Adegeest himself, wearing an orange jersey to match his avatar’s. The image expands, showing Adegeest in full view as she puts her hands on her head and breathes deeply. Her eyes seemed to fill with tears of joy, and the sweat on her face left no doubt of the intensity of the feat.