The Challenges Ahead for Zwift and ESports

Video and Film

It was almost exactly two months ago that Zwift announced they received a whopping $120 million USD in new funding, whereby a large chunk of that would be spent on digital racing – known as esports.

Since then, the company has been on a blitz to draw your, and sponsors’ attention, to the racers and teams which compete each week in their KISS Super League race series. The races are live streamed, with the women competing on Tuesday night, and the men following on Wednesday night.

But just a few weeks after the December announcement, Zwift company partnered with Cycling Australia (the national cycling federation of Australia) to offer a full national championship jersey to the winner of a Zwift event held in conjunction with the federation’s annual national championship events in Ballarat. That’s right, the winner would get the exact same national jersey as any other national level title – this one being for the official event of “Cycling Australia eRacing Criterium Championship”.

Of course, while the event itself might have been entertaining to those in the room – it was more of an example of how far Zwift still had to go when it came to putting on a professional sports event where real-world prizes (such as money or national titles) are at stake. So much so that Zwift has since walked back slightly on their ambitions for 2019, saying instead that remote Zwift racers could act as qualifiers to real-life national finals – rather than national titles altogether (but more on that in a minute).

Still, Zwift’s weekly events as part of the KISS Super League are making good progress upon each iteration, towards at least one element critical to any sporting event: entertainment. But entertainment only works when people trust that the results are believable. And that’s where most of the challenges Zwift still has yet to resolve going forward.

So for today’s post I’m going to dive into many of the elements that lie ahead on Zwift’s self-proclaimed path towards not just more formal national federation level racing in 2020, but their oft-noted goal of getting e-cycling into the 2028 Summer Olympics as an exhibition sport.

So many ways to cheat:

The first elephant in the room to discuss is cheating. Anytime you talk about sports you have to talk about cheating. And it seems like anytime someone talks about Zwift, cheating isn’t far behind either. Today, there are essentially four core ways one can cheat in Zwift – racing or otherwise:

1) Traditional doping (drugs)
2) Mechanical cheating (tweaking trainers/power meters/motors)
3) Weight (setting an incorrect rider weight)
4) Not being who you say you are (specific to racing)

Now, unlike the infamous ‘motor doping’ scandals of the past few years, the technological focus here is more around the trainers themselves.

See, in a race like the KISS Super League, the riders are split in two types of locations: The main event venue, and remotely (such as at home). For those at the main event location that week, as it was, Canyon’s HQ this week – they’re riding on whatever trainers Zwift provides. That’s typically part of a sponsorship deal for the event that week. Whereas those riders at home are riding on whatever smart trainers that they have. They could be a high-end Tacx Neo trainer, or, it could be a lower-end Tacx Vortex.

The difference? Accuracy.

In the case of the Tacx NEO trainer used at the event venue last night, it’s unquestionably the most accurate trainer out there – claimed at +/- 1% (and oft validated as well at that). Whereas that Tacx Vortex is only accurate to +/- 5%. That’s a *massive* difference in this event. And in fact, most trainers at the lower end tend to be least accurate at the most important times: Sprints.

In my testing, I’ve seen numerous cases where trainers that claim +/- 5% accuracy will be off by many hundreds of watts, again, easily the difference between winning or not in a race like this.

Unfortunately, there’s no standardization today on this within Zwift or these events. Zwift doesn’t require anything more than a smart trainer or power meter. Nor does Zwift do any validation of accuracy themselves, or certify any trainers for accuracy.

Zwift today looks at racers in two piles:

1) At the venue
2) Remote (at home/etc)

In the case of at venue events, the riders are provided trainers that they are required by the rules to use (more for promotional reasons than anything). Whereas for remote riders it’s up to that rider to pick their trainer. For example, they could choose a trainer like the CycleOps Hammer 1/2 which is well known to overcommit on sprints in Zwift, thus resulting in higher power numbers than reality during that sprint. In fact, in Zwift racing circles this trainer is popular for that singular reason.

Still – all riders are actually treated equally in the race. There’s no separate category for people in the venue versus at home. It’s just one race.

But there’s actually a bigger issue than that at play – tweaking calibration of the trainers. All trainers today except the Tacx NEO series require some form of occasional calibration or spin-down routine. It’s during this process that on some trainers you can tweak the calibration to give you a higher power level than reality. In fact, it’s so trivial to do on certain trainers (such as a Wahoo KICKR) that a rider could likely even do it sitting at the race venue in front of everyone without anyone else even realizing it. And that ignores all the riders at home that have all the time and lack of transparency to do as they please.

The key with cheating in this manner at this level is that you don’t need massive gains. You just need a few percent more to win.

These are real problems that have to be solved, and to Zwift’s credit, they do seem to recognize this. When I asked Zwift about this issue, Steve Becket (Zwift VP of Marketing & Customer Acquisition) noted the following:

“You are right to point out that some hardware can be ‘gamed’ to produce higher power meter readings. Across 2019, Zwift will be working with hardware manufacturers to mitigate this from 2020. It is very likely that hardware restrictions for racing will tighten up in 2020, but Zwift needs to acknowledge that hardware manufacturers need time to respond to this feedback as trainers are developed, in the most part, for training – not racing.”

And he’s correct. As it stands today, if I were running a racing league where I was dolling out large sums of money or high-value prizes (like a national championship Jersey), there’s frankly only one trainer I would allow and use. Everything else is just too easy to game and cheat with.

Note that there’s an interesting underlying sponsorship catch here too: Individual rider or team sponsorships. For example, last night’s event at Canyon’s HQ has on-venue riders on Tacx trainers. That’s because the Canyon team is sponsored by Tacx.  But what happens when a venue is shared by multiple riders/teams (as was the case of the Cycling Australia event?). Well, in that case, it defers to the sponsor for that particular event race. But that gets tricky. Virtually all pro-level riders have team sponsorship with existing trainer companies (primarily Tacx, Elite, and Wahoo). But even more complicated is if there’s an individual with another trainer brand – perhaps Kinetic or JetBlack. And what happens if that trainer doesn’t meet the accuracy requirements set forth for 2020?  Is that rider required to ride on a brand that’s a competitor to their own sponsor (which is undoubtedly a violation of most sponsorship clauses)? Lots of outstanding issues still.

However, that still doesn’t solve the next issue of weight. There have been discussions that riders will need to weigh-in on a scale using a webcam to validate their weight.  That raises plenty of issues.  Most riders will want to wear as little as possible for this – since the lower the weight the faster you’ll go given a specific wattage.

But that quickly leads to videos of young women standing in bathrooms in nothing but their underwear being sent to an unknown place with unknown security controls and unknown people viewing them. Likely a better solution is to simply require all riders (male and female) to just wear their cycling kit (jersey/bib) when weighing in with a webcam. Still, these sorts of things haven’t seemingly been vetted through yet and tweaking your weight is by far the most common way to cheat in Zwift.

(And weight scale integration without a webcam ignores the reality that simply pushing up on a nearby table/counter while you weigh-in means you can easily shave weight off the reading of a digital scale.)

The weight validation actually slides right into the next category – which is whether the rider competing in a given event in Zwift is actually the rider they say they are. For example, a remote female rider competing remotely in the Zwift KISS series could actually be a male rider – one that more than likely would be stronger, and likely earn more points.  This could be solved easily through the usage of simple web cams being required for each rider, but again, gets to the lack of a cohesive platform for how to handle the unique requirements that a professional sporting event has on Zwift.

And finally – that still leaves issues around traditional doping that continues to be a major challenge for both amateur and professional cycling today. Zwift hasn’t even touched this aspects of things, instead mostly deferring to local federations. In some races the rider must be a members of a local federation which may (or may not) do drug testing. No testing is being done on-site at this time for athletes at a given venue.

Analytics and Results:

The next challenge Zwift faces is oddly enough probably the easiest to solve: Results

Today, results are handled in two manners: First, live results are (sometimes) shown within the Zwift app/livestream itself, immediately upon completion. But these results aren’t actually considered the official result of record. Instead, that is deferred over to a site called ZwiftPower. Zwift today considers it a requirement that all KISS World Series riders register on ZwiftPower.

Still, to backup briefly on the live piece, let’s look at last night’s women’s race – there was no instant results as riders crossed the finish line. Instead, you just saw this:

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Followed by understandable confusion for a while from the commentator. They even pulled out a static finish line camera replay, but couldn’t overlay any data to support it. No timing data shown at the one point it matters to show it.

To be clear: The entire point of a race is to win the race. Thus, if the broadcast must get one thing right, it’s knowing the winner at the point the winner crosses the line. In other words: You had one job…and didn’t do it.

It wasn’t until some 90 seconds later this was shown:

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But the next piece is actually more relevant beyond KISS. See – while Zwift handles results that you see on the screen after a typical community race/event, the official record keeper for most events (including KISS) is actually ZwiftPower.  This community supported site tracks results of all scheduled events, both major/minor races and simple group rides alike. The site used also receives funding from Zwift to operate.

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The site has two main purposes in life:

A) Tracks race/event results and allows you to do some cool analytics/historical stats
B) Disqualifies riders that appear to be cheating

The first one is great – and is an awesome use of a 3rd party service. Of course, Zwift lacks strong API’s to really let ZwiftPower do the kind of cool stuff that it could potential do (similar to what we see apps do on Strava’s API’s). But that’s a different discussion for a different day.

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It’s the second one that’s more challenging. In this case, ZwiftPower actually acts as a the arbitrator of whether or not someone is cheating based on historical results and a black-box algorithm. This runs under the name ZADA (Zwift Anti-Doping Agency), but in reality, it’s got almost nothing to do with Zwift itself. Instead, it’s ZwiftPower running it. And the only doping they deal with is when power numbers don’t look right (even if they are).

Now, I don’t blame ZwiftPower/ZADA here. They started years ago and were trying to fill a void in amateur racing on Zwift. But the workload simply got too big, and back in early January they disbanded ZADA and stopped performing anti-cheating type activities on any/all results. There were also concerns around the defensibility of ZADA against real-world lawsuits from riders that felt they were wronged.  For example, if ZADA flagged a rider as a cheater, that could have real-world implications for a persons life/career in the ‘hurt but ask questions later’ world of social media today. Especially for something that could be as simple as a crappy and inaccurate trainer or power meter.

Of course, this was at the exact moment that Zwift and the KISS Super League needed it most. So in mid-January Zwift stepped in and funded ZADA to cover the KISS League events.

Ultimately though – this doesn’t belong with ZwiftPower. This belongs with Zwift, at least for now. Zwift needs to take responsibility for both results and anti-doping efforts directly.  Of course, down the road a 3rd party organization ala WADA should own this, but I don’t think that ZwiftPower really wants to be that organization.

And for results, Zwift.com should *always* be the first stop for finding out if someone won a race. Race organizers should be able to manage results on Zwift.com (or applicable Zwift app) and then DQ people as they see fit. Participants shouldn’t be required to use a 3rd party site that only a small portion of Zwift event participants actually appear to know about.  For example, in the recent Tour de Zwift series, only 6,036 out of 24,758 people used ZwiftPower to track their results*. That’s a mere 24%.

(*The easiest number to look at apples to apples was riders who completed all 9 stages, which would most closely align with riders most familiar with Zwift. That would actually likely artificially inflate the % even more.)

Which isn’t to say that Zwift Power doesn’t have a future. I absolutely think they do. I think they could become the VeloViewer of Zwift – doing incredible analytics and stat tracking. But Zwift needs to take governorship first of one of the most important part of racing: The results.

Entertainment:

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Of course – there is one part of this that Zwift has been addressing as of late, and it’s definitely shown: The entertainment factor.

And quite frankly – this might actually be the most important one, just as it is for any sport. If a sport isn’t entertaining people won’t watch it. And if people don’t watch it, then sponsors won’t pay to support it. And if all that happens – the sport dies.

In the past, CVR used to run their World Cup events on Zwift, which were pretty well produced. Like anything, one could offer suggestions for improvements, but by and large they were executed quite well. Still, while the races were held within Zwift as a game, it was held totally outside of support from Zwift itself.

Last month though Zwift started stepping up their approach to Zwift as a watchable sport as part of the KISS Super League, which is a weekly race on Tuesday (for women), and Wednesday (for men). These events are held in various locations – last night’s race at the Canyon Headquarters – and are commented live by a team of individuals, including Matt Stephens, formerly from GCN.  The events last an hour, and feature riders from lower level pro teams (not WorldTour, but mostly regional teams). These screenshots in this section are all from last night’s event (which you can watch here):

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The broadcast incorporates standard elements found in most professional sporting events includes pre-canned video segments about the course/route for the day, as well as commentary about the planned route and the challenges that lie ahead:

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As the race progresses the camera focuses on a given rider, and allows you to see the wattage (both watts and w/kg), heart rate and cadence of the rider. Plus elements like speed and distance.  This view is for the most part no different than what you’d see within Zwift as a normal user.

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In fact – in this respect the metrics displayed here are generally more instant and complete than you’ll see in most TV productions of a typical WorldTour event, since many teams will restrict  elements like power data to only a handful of riders (if any). There’s also a ‘Distance Remaining’ overlay that Zwift has added that), as well as laps remaining.

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Still, one of the elements that becomes immediately apparent once watching the broadcast is that Zwift seemingly hasn’t done much to cater to camera views used in-game. For example, typically in a pro cycling TV production there will be static and moving TV cameras throughout the course that focus on groups or the entire peloton coming into it.

And while Zwift has some of that via the helicopter view and some of the regular Zwift views where a specific rider passes a temporary camera along the side, we don’t see live cameras at finishing banners for example, or sprint banners – the primary sprints are typically shown in professional cycling. This is the view we get of going just under the sprint banner, which is following a rider rather than staying static at the banner like you’d typically see.

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Further, unlike a typical pro cycling event, there’s no leaderboard showing the exact position/splits of the sprint.  This is where I’d love to be able to see a direct camera on that sprint/finish-line in real-time and then instantly show the splits as the riders go across it.

Additionally, while Zwift does a good job at ensuring all of the teams have proper team kits in the race, the names shown on the side as confusing AF. This is because Zwift doesn’t have any way to properly identify teams or groups within the rider list, so it rotates like a Times Square reader board between the name of the rider and the team.

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Of course – this issue isn’t limited to just the big name Zwift races, rather, it frustrates the heck out of everyone – and has for some time. Why we can’t add team names and/or logos after a riders name without cheesy hacks has been a mystery for years. Today, people append a team name in brackets to their name, which isn’t super clear or easy to follow.

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Finally – I’d point out that while the stream states its in 1080p, it doesn’t appear that the stream quality (especially of the game side) is actually in a proper 1080p. Rather, it appears closer to 720p. While streaming can be challenging, at this level of production and financing it shouldn’t be (keep in mind that YouTube supports live streaming quality up to 4K/60).  The reason quality matters here is that when it comes to picking out team rider jerseys, that can get difficult when things are more pixelized.

Those criticisms aside, the overall broadcast quality of these events have dramatically improved each week. If you watched the first events just a month ago – I’d encourage you to go take another swing at things these days.  The live in-race commentary by Nathan is spot-on in terms of being both educational as well as on-point. That said, I think any live sporting event can benefit from a two-person commentator team, which often can allow a bit of banter back and forth that is tougher to do in a solo-commentator mode.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that unlike professional sporting events, you can actually support the riders in real-time using the Zwift Companion app (on your smartphone) to give ‘Ride-On’s (which are kinda like kudos) to the riders.  So there’s elements here that don’t exist in the real world that are definitely unique to Zwift.

And again – overall the one-hour format that Zwift is doing today with KISS for live events is quite compelling as we’re now a few weeks into them finding their footing.

Going Forward:

While the list of challenges might seem long, in reality, most of them aren’t actually all that complex. Instead, like tackling any home improvement project you just need to hunker down and knock them out one item at a time.

As noted earlier, Zwift seems to have slightly course corrected on how they’re categorizing racing in 2019. Keeping in mind that Zwift’s original Cycling Austria championship event on January 4th, 2019 awarded a jersey titles to two remote riders. Remote riders being people not at the race venue. The company has since shifted away from that recommend for the rest of the year. The official guidance from Zwift is now as follows:

“Covering (1) Racing Remotely and (2) Racing at Live Venues, we’re working towards two categories describing a governing body’s association with an esports event:

  • Racing Remotely:
    • Zwift’s position here is a National Governing Body should only “Endorse” these events in 2019. I.e. Federations endorse that Zwift’s cultivating a Zwift racing community with the aspiration of developing real world national championships/finals.
    • These events can act as qualifiers to in real life National finals and will be subject to assessments by ZADA
  • Racing at Live Venues:
    • Zwift’s position here is a National Governing Body “Sanctions” events run by Zwift or produces these events by collaborating with Zwift.
    • The upcoming British Cycling eRacing Championships is something you should cast your eye on. The rules and regulations are in keeping with high level competition and we will share this document once all parties have signed-off.”

The aforementioned British Cycling eRacing Championship event will hold its first qualifier this Sunday morning – February 24th, though information and details on the championships beyond that is surprisingly scarce. Of course, like all these events, these are paid partnerships between Zwift and the governing body in question. The goal from the governing body’s side being to get younger people into racing by pulling in those with an interesting in Zwift, while the goal from Zwift’s side being to legitimize Zwift as a valid platform to compete on professionally.

As we saw this year, Zwift has already started pulling in lower level pro cycling teams to compete on Zwift, with the eventual goal of getting not just individual pro riders – but full WorldTour level teams onboard as well to compete. The company isn’t there yet, but it won’t take too much more advancement on the event side, plus a scoop of that $120 million in cash to solidify higher end team and rider involvement.

Still, it’s good to see Zwift admit that the platform isn’t fully ready today in 2019. In fact, Zwift’s Steve Becket went further on this in a recent e-mail discussion to me:

“Esports from 2020: It’s mind boggling (and scary) how much work needs to be done to create an Esports platform from 2020 – which will orientate around a truly gamified racing experience.

So, creating KSL [KISS Super League] & KL was to meet these business demands. We aren’t launching a full fledged racing product – far from it – which is why we’re positioning KSL (and Zwift racing with pro athletes) around being a demonstration sport in 2019 to industry, media and consumer audiences in the cycling space. I.e. to help form a picture around what Esports could like like in future.”

And I completely agree with that position. Thus while it may seem like I’m negative on Zwift esports, I’m actually quite the opposite. I think there’s fascinating opportunity here, not just from an entertainment standpoint – but also to shed new light within the sports technology realm. And I think last night’s women’s race was the first time to date where I felt like the production quality was to the point of being captivating and entertaining.

That said, I just think that there’s some work to be done before cycling federations start handing out national championship jerseys to riders in events that wouldn’t pass the same muster out on the real road.

With that, certainly interested in hearing your thoughts below – and thanks for reading!

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