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How Do High-Profile Esports Cycling Races Ensure Fair Conditions?

By WeLoveCycling

Esports have been enjoying a decent amount of limelight recently and with the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports Championships approaching fast, more people might be drawn to their inner workings, especially those related to performance evaluation. How hard is it to monitor each rider, given that they happen to be in all corners of the world? It would seem like the lack of physical supervision opens the field to various kinds of temptations. Or does it? Sean Parry, who is leading the World Championships for Zwift, and Alex Crimmens, Zwift’s Commercial Director, explained to WeLoveCycling how pro-level Esports races on Zwift ensure utmost fairness of conditions for all participants.

Let’s delve deeper into the mechanisms and safeguards put in place to guarantee the results of Esports races taking place on the platform cannot be compromised. Zwift is a hybrid of real-world physical activity and virtual worlds that utilizes the Massively Multiplayer Online gaming technology (MMO), which enables competing and socializing in an attractive gamified environment. And while community riding with friends is all fun and, quite literally, games, large-scale, elite events such as the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports Championships must devise a strict handbook to put all participants on the same racing level.

UCI Esports
How challenging is it to monitor each rider in the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports Championships? © Zwift

Unified hardware is key 

According to Sean and Alex, the cornerstone equipment is, naturally, the smart trainer to which the rider connects their bicycle to compete at home. Wahoo, the official hardware partner of the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports Championships, provided each competing cyclist with a Wahoo Kickr v5 smart trainer and all of the associated accessories to ensure each athlete competes on the same model during the event. “Wahoo supplied each rider with a smart trainer that self-calibrates continuously, we ensure all riders in the event are on the latest firmware version. Wahoo and Zwift provide a lot of direct support to the athletes and undertake ongoing remote monitoring to ensure that the equipment is working correctly in advance of the event. That is a very fundamental factor in how we level the playing field. In World Championship-level Esports, unified hardware is very important,” Sean specified.

Regulation of digital equipment and reporting of performance data

The next thing high up on the list is the in-game equipment. “That is a very interesting area. In Zwift, each piece of equipment has its own performance parameters. A high-end bike will go up a hill quicker, a time-trial helmet might reduce your drag but during this event, all in-game equipment will be neutralized,” commented Sean. What this means is that riders will be able to choose their gear freely as it will all have the same properties. “This, coupled with the hardware, probably provides a more equal baseline for the riders than in a real-life race as you might have competitors on vastly different setups with different performance parameters,” Sean concluded.

Furthermore, it is each rider’s responsibility to ensure that race data is accurately reported back during the event, be it the power output and cadence via the provided trainer or the heart rate via a connected monitor. Preventing signal interference and using a stable internet connection is a must – inaccurate readings can lead to dropouts and disqualifications as the race is monitored live. “We are working closely with Wahoo to provide support for the athletes from the moment they get the trainer. We’ve got a helpline and an e-mail set up so the riders can contact either us or Wahoo, depending on the nature of their concern,” Alex added.

Athletes under scrutiny

There are also strict rules concerning providing height, weight and other metrics of the rider, which include several video proofs to verify those and various lengthy protocols. “If any of the important pre-race checks fail, we will not let the rider start, so that they are not able to influence the outcome of the race when we know we would need to disqualify them afterwards,” clarifies Sean. Zwift’s wide range of algorithms and rigorous tests collect huge volumes of performance data, so they are able to identify anything out of the ordinary with any particular rider and investigate possible red flags. “The protocols might look quite intimidating to somebody who hasn’t done this before, but the vast majority of the riders have no problems complying to ensure all is as fair as possible. In fact, many of our top-level riders are active in helping to shape and refine our regulations over time, as they know that these are key to providing a fair race,” Sean describes the Zwift community aspect.

On a related note, the platform also gives the riders themselves opportunities to report suspicious performances and such occurrences then go through strict review and appeal processes. “But in nearly all of the cases, we will have already identified that these performances are suspect,” notes Sean. In order to assist any riders that have not been through these processes before, including those picked by their National Federations, Zwift has set up a dedicated technical team, which will support each athlete if needed. “The emphasis is on ensuring compliance, deterrence of any wrongdoing, and making sure we have systems and controls in place which allow us to identify any infractions, be they accidental or deliberate,” Sean rounds off the topic.

Gamification, the spice of Esports

Another unique thing about Esports are the various gamification elements the riders can collect and strategically deploy throughout the race. Zwift uses so-called PowerUps that will also be a key feature of the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, and each rider has a 100% guarantee of being awarded one of them at seven locations of the Knickerbocker route in total. These are:

  • Van – Occurs three times, increases the draft effect racers are experiencing by 50% for 30 seconds. These are to be used at higher speeds when already drafting off another rider.
  • Aero – Occurs twice, makes riders more aerodynamic (reduces their CdA by 25%) for 15 seconds. To be used at higher speeds (flats and descents), especially when no draft is available.
  • Feather – Occurs twice, reduces the rider’s weight by 10% for 15 seconds. To be used on climbs when weight matters most.

When asked if someone could consider the PowerUps too much of a helping hand for the race to be fair, Sean was clear: “Everyone has the same opportunity. There are no random-number games for this World Championship race – if you go through a certain arch, you get a specific PowerUp and then it’s up to you how and when to use them strategically, which is also something that sets Esports apart from racing in real life. It stimulates the [usage of] new and different tactics.”

And, last but not least, it is also vital to mention that Zwift has been working closely with the UCI to implement an anti-doping programme that all participating riders will have to take part in before the race.

Save the date 26th February to watch the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships! They will be available at Eurosport, GCN and GCN+ regarding TV broadcast, and the online version will be streamed on Zwift’s website, Zwift’s YouTube channel, and on the UCI’s website as well.