Late last month, UCI announced that they would be partnering with Zwift, the online riding app, to establish e-sport as a new cycling discipline. In a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the two partners, the integration of cycling e-sports into the UCI Constitution was made official. Outlined as a two-part objective, the parties have vowed to establish requirements that guarantee the speciality meets the standards of sporting integrity and fairness necessary for all UCI-sanctioned disciplines. In addition, they will launch the inaugural UCI Cycling E-Sports World Championships in 2020, as well as qualification events for these Championships, on the Zwift platform.
An exciting announcement for many cycling hopefuls who were previously excluded by time or circumstance from participating at the UCI level, this is also an opportunity for the biggest governing body in the sport to make clear what matters to them going forward. With the prospect of real change on the horizon, Craig Edmondson, CEO of Zwift e-sports, reflected that, “the beauty of creating a new cycling discipline is that we have a blank slate and no limitations. We will set the standard for fair play and equality.”
And demonstrating that the same rules will apply for both men and women appears to be at the top of their priority list. Edmondson continued that, “parity is incredibly important to us at Zwift and together with the UCI we will be working to create equal competition for both men and women. This means the same number of races, the same coverage for races, and of course, equal prize money.”
Although this should by no means serve as a substitution for the improvements that still need to be made in other aspects of the sport, it is encouraging to see the issue framed as a central part of the initiative. In addition to showing their commitment to decreasing the gender gap in competitive cycling, the e-sport announcement also speaks to a willingness to adapt and explore other avenues where cycling has the potential to develop.
David Lappartient, president of the UCI, said the governing body wanted to remain open to technical innovations in order to “remain relevant to all audiences.” He went on to acknowledge that Zwift is a platform that is enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities and to note the potential to engage younger riders or enthusiasts. “There is a particularly exciting opportunity through e-sports as we look to attract a younger audience to cycling. Together we have an opportunity to support a fitter youth, through the creation of a new sustainable sport,” he said.
Audience is a big part of it. In addition to providing a platform for the riders themselves, this new development also has lots to offer in terms of increasing fan base. The lack of television coverage of women’s cycling has been long lamented as a serious roadblock to allowing the sport to cultivate the kind of support it needs to thrive, and an e-sport World Championship could do a lot to change that. Many live streaming competitions have established a serious fan base, so there’s no reason to assume this will be different.
Of course, implementing UCI standards across a riding app is not a simple task, but they seem to have a plan in place that can ensure the sporting credibility of cycling e-sports events. According to the press release, this will include the establishment of a hardware programme that is reliable enough to be used in events sanctioned by the UCI, a performance verification programme that will validate a rider’s performance and ward against technological fraud, and a rider identification system, including height and weight. Moreover, different formats of racing, for individuals and teams, will be tested and the UCI Regulations will be updated accordingly.
All in all, it seems like this is definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to the accessibility of competitive cycling. It’s a way to broaden the appeal of the sport without the logistics and costs associated with travelling to races. Indeed, you do have to buy an expensive indoor trainer to get the interactive experience, but any cyclist who has travelled regularly to a series of races will get the possible savings by staying at home to compete. As Lappartient added during the announcement, “e-sports is a new way of practising cycling that is expanding rapidly and enables more athletes, whether beginners or more experienced, to train and race regardless of what the weather is like and where they live.”
As it stands, the details are still not entirely set regarding how or when the final competition will take place, but Zwift is currently working with the UCI to lay down the ground rules and establish an official cycling e-sports rulebook. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing this vision come to life and hope that it can generate some positive momentum for a more diverse group of cyclists!