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Crafting the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports Championships: Setting Up the Playing Field

By WeLoveCycling

Because of the pandemic, online sporting activities and events with gamified elements have gradually edged forward from the niche territory to the mainstream, with Zwift spearheading the progress. After partnering with the UCI for the cycling events within the first Olympic Virtual Series in 2021, Zwift has now set the stage for the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports Championships, set to take place on 26th February. Two of the masterminds behind the elite event, Sean Parry, who is leading the World Championships for Zwift, and Alex Crimmens, Zwift’s Commercial Director, took time amid busy preparations to talk to We Love Cycling about all it takes to get such an extraordinary feat into motion.

Zwift is home to “the world’s first hybrid physical/virtual sport” that utilizes Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gaming technology, that enables runners and cyclists across the globe to train, compete with one another, explore virtual worlds, and, finally, socialize. All in real time and with captivating visuals. Not surprisingly, all this has been years in the making and the long-term development and building of this unique ecosystem and infrastructure took hundreds of people.

Zwift race
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. © Zwift

MMO Worldbuilding

Starting with inquiries about the groundwork, Sean outlined: “At Zwift, we’ve been developing all of the fundamental structures around physics from the very start, and we’ve been building and optimizing as time has gone on,” clarified Sean. “We’ve recently celebrated our eighth birthday, and we’ve been constantly improving all the underlying parameters and in-game behaviour,” added Alex.

 “Using our in-game physics engine” Sean continued, “we’ve built the same in-game physics that emulate all the factors you would see outside – air resistance, road surfaces, and interactions with other riders based on the cyclist’s height and weight such as drafting, sitting in the slipstream, as we have modelled all aerodynamic behaviour, and so on. There’s a real relationship between the effort people put in on their turbo trainers and the movement that you see. The trainers respond intelligently to the changes, for example, in gradient in-game so it feels the same as it would in a physical world.”

Designing this year’s UCI Cycling Esports World Championships Route 

The 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships route was custom made by an expert team that has been crafting Zwift routes for years. The racers, split into elite women’s and elite men’s events, will be riding 2.5 laps of the Knickerbocker route, which has already existed in the Zwift environment and has been tweaked for the occasion. It is set in a futuristic version of New York in 100 years with flying cars and raised glass roads, which will make an intriguing challenge for the riders and an attractive spectacle for the audience. Sean describes it as: “A classic Zwift course. It’s a mixture of a real-life destination, New York’s Central Park and routes that are already there, with a fantastical Zwift twist to it.

Knickerbocker route
The famous Knickerbocker route. © Zwift

“It’s perfectly tailored to how we want the race to play out. We wanted to make something that’s reasonably short and sharp, built for entertainment and fitting within the 1-1.5-hour timeframe; to create a situation that would make for a really animated race, with a narrative around the strategic choices the riders will have to make.”

In total, riders will cover 54.9km and 944m of climbing, which translates to over an hour of intense, tactical racing with chances to attack or break away. The race finishes at the top of the New York KOM, which is a 1.4-km climb with an average gradient of 6.1%. The course is reputedly well known and feared by the Zwift community racers thanks to its difficulty level.

Moreover, according to Sean, you will probably see the difference between experienced Zwift racers who mastered, as he calls it, the ‘Zwift game craft’, and those newer to the environment.

“It’s an intuitive understanding of all the in-game physics, algorithms, and how to use gamified features like PowerUps,” he notes. Besides the substantial prize money, the winner of the men’s and women’s events will be awarded the UCI Cycling Esports World Championship jersey incorporating the famous rainbow stripes, which they can also physically wear at UCI-sanctioned events throughout the following year.

Scouting for talent

To get the best possible start list, there was a structured pre-selection process in co-operation with the individual national federations under the UCI, which selected their best to represent the particular nations. But there was also an innovation put in place this year: continental qualifier events open to practically anyone to allow for the best talent to get in.

Zwift 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. © Zwift

“The range of athletes on Zwift is vast. A lot of them aren’t going through the traditional pathways to pro cycling and a handful of them don’t even do that much outdoor racing. They might not have an existing relationship with the UCI or a national federation, but are actually the strongest Zwift racers, adapted to the efforts required to be successful in esports racing,” explains Sean. These highest-ranking racers were then placed in the UCI teams for the event, which introduced top new talent to national federations. It is evident that Esports are already turning out to be an exciting platform to recruit new cycling stars.

Reaching the viewers with a unique spectacle

The coverage of such a race is a self-standing chapter. The camera angles, the visual appeal, the futuristic nature of Esports – all this can be achieved via an in-game live broadcast. You will be able to watch the live stream on several platforms. 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.

“We’ve got global access for anybody who wants to watch this anywhere in the world as our core aim is to get the broadcast to as many people as possible,” Sean underlined as, at Zwift, they also see Esports as heavily community-based and as a great tool to bring the racers and audience even closer together in an interactive way. An amazing little feature that is a testament to this are the Ride Ons. You can give your co-riders or, if you will be watching the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships broadcast, the competing pro riders a little thumbs up for their efforts and as a morale boost via the Zwift app. These visibly pop up live on screen, driving fan interaction, and brining the audience closer to the race.

Zwift: The community-bonding tool

Another outstanding thing about Zwift is that it is an unprecedented way for hundreds of thousands of people to ride the same parcours the pros do in a way that won’t be possible in real life. According to Sean, over 100,000 people have already ridden the Knickerbocker route to experience and appreciate what the pros will go through, which could never happen in real life. This adds to the number of different and unique ways and communication tools people can use to engage with the event – and with one another anytime they are using Zwift.

Check the ‘Events’ page on Zwift’s website if you wish to join in on the fun as there are hundreds of rides, races and workouts you can join every single day from morning through night. If you would like to explore the possibilities but need to get acquainted with the basics of setting up a Zwift account or the world of smart indoor trainers first, we have got you covered. And after you have learnt everything about the setup, we can lend you a hand with selecting the best turbo trainer for you.

Are you inclined to try virtual cycling or have you been a faithful fan for years? Tell us in the comments and don’t forget to save the date of 26th February to watch the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships!