The night eRacing got its big break

The pandemic has, for the moment, left eRacing as the only form of competition, but a year ago, at the first British Nationals, it was still bidding to break through...

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com - 28/03/2019 - Cycling - British Cycling Zwift eRacing Championships - Here East, Olympic Park , Stratford, London

Just over a year ago we headed to the first-ever British Cycling eRacing Championships at BT Sport’s studios in London, hosted on the Zwift gaming platform. It was the first time this new discipline had received such a big showcase and we wondered whether it could ever take off in a big, sustained way. Little did we know that an incoming global pandemic would render it the only racing we could do for the foreseeable future. Below is that full feature from issue 354, documenting the rise of cycling’s newest form of racing. To subscribe to Cycling Plus and receive 30% off the cover price and get a Lezyne Pocket Drive Pump worth £25, click this link.

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Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com - 28/03/2019 - Cycling - British Cycling Zwift eRacing Championships - Here East, Olympic Park , Stratford, London Ian Bibby
Photo credit: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

Central Park, New York City. Ed Laverack (SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling) tears off the front of the bunch. His monstrous effort looks like it might take him clear in pursuit of the finish line, but he mistimes his jump and is reeled in before the line. To add insult to injury, he’s immediately spat out of the back. Out of this elimination race at the first opportunity, he pulls over to leave what remains of the 10-strong peloton waging war for the win.

As a bike racing fan this will all sound familiar. However, it’s unlike anything you may have seen before. For starters, we’re not in NYC at all, but the TV studio of BT Sport. This ‘NYC’ is a simulated dreamscape, the Big Apple as it might look 100 years from now. Its distinctive yellow taxis have taken to the skies, as have the roads, which jut sharply out of a pixelated Central Park, morphing into giant glass tunnels.

Laverack is here, in the studio, and there, in Zwift, as an avatar. Like a more benevolent version of The Matrix, his virtual self is sustained by real-world muscle, toiling away on a bike rigged up to a Wahoo Kickr and beamed onto a giant screen via the Zwift gaming platform.

His game over, real-world Laverack departs, signalled by an ominous sound effect and a bright light – trained on him from the rafters of this cavernous Stratford studio – turning a deep red, casting him out into the shadows.

Game show stuff indeed, missing only Anne Robinson, because, for now, Laverack is the weakest link. In gaming terms, he’s just lost a life but there’s no going back to start over, not immediately anyway, and he’ll have to wait for round two (the points race an hour from now) for another turn.

Instead, he gets a tap on the shoulder from the race commissaire to signal it’s time to go. He climbs off and quietly departs, leaving his rivals to duke it out for a – real and virtual – national jersey.

At the back of the studio, a small audience of invited guests is engaging with this new strand of cycle sport with a mixture of curiosity and intrigue, and perhaps bafflement and cynicism. Among this audience is Eric Min, the American co-founder and CEO of Zwift, who naturally has a more progressive attitude than the more ideological members of a viewing public famously unreceptive to innovation.

This BT Sport showcase is the biggest yet for a type of racing that began on the platform, spread through its community – both in game and via web streaming – and is now making waves in the burgeoning eSports industry. After Zwift’s successful launch of its KISS Super League in London in January – the first eSports league featuring pro cyclists – the British National Champs is another step forward, with a setting to match.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Zwift, whether used recreationally or competitively, has shaken up the sport and the industry. Min reckons over a third of last year’s Tour de France peloton were Zwift users, and it’s quickly become the way to train indoors. Pros have used it to prepare for big races, with Mat Hayman famously using it intensively while recovering from injury to win Paris-Roubaix. Kit manufacturers are starting to see the effect of Zwift; some are producing clothing specific to the humid indoor workout, while we may soon see a drop in winter clothing, as cyclists opt for the sanctuary of indoor training.

Training on it is one thing, though. Turning it into a spectator sport is something else altogether. Min doesn’t pretend that the product it’s offering is close to the finished article. With live pictures beamed onto TV screens countrywide, these National Champs are a big statement of intent, made possible by the connections of Zwift’s new head of eSports, Craig Edmondson, who joined the firm from football’s Premier League, where he was head of marketing for 14 years.

Yet Min admits there’s much to do to turn eRacing’s potential into TV gold. “We’re really just at the beginning of a new cycling discipline,” he tells us, “taking one of the oldest sports, innovating it and turning it digital.

“It’s not a finished product. I think you’ll see us experiment with lots of different race formats and ways to present it to a new audience. The game will change to suit what the public wants.” Zwift, he says, needs tweaking and upgrading, to make it a viable eSports proposition.

“How do we regulate the sport? What are the specifications for the hardware? How do we assess and verify performance? At the moment it’s not good enough for elite competition. There’s a lot to do to make this a sport that people will want to invest in.

“What you see now is rudimentary,” Min continues. “Zwift, now, is really just one input – the watts each rider puts out, plus the PowerUps [the minor boosts to performance, such as drafting or weight loss, that you win and use]. But imagine if you had two inputs. Imagine if you could steer or brake? What if we layered on more strategic PowerUps, or new ways to communicate with your team?”

You can hear Min’s brain going into overdrive at the prospect.

“We have a lot of work to do to turn it into a viewing experience,” he considers, “but when it’s software you’re working with, you’re only limited by your imagination.”

Man on the Mic

While Zwift’s programming wizards experiment with the gameplay, the spectator experience during the national championships had as much to do with the rapid-fire commentary of Wisconsin’s Nathan Guerra than anything else. Every sport needs an engaging personality behind the mic, filling in the gaps in the viewing public’s knowledge. For what is essentially a new sport, those gaps are chasms. eRacing sceptics will likely emerge from a chat with Guerra as converts; his enthusiasm is contagious and his ambition for the sport compelling.

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com - 28/03/2019 - Cycling - British Cycling Zwift eRacing Championships - Here East, Olympic Park , Stratford, London Hannah Walker Laura Winter
Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – Nathan Guerra (far right) at the British Nationals

His story is fascinating too. He’s one of the top mountain bikers in the US, though recently the travel associated with sports commentary has got in the way of training. Long before smart trainers and Zwift, he’d train nightly indoors for hour upon hour – his only option during harsh winters in the American Midwest. To ease the monotony, he’d double up with World of Warcraft (a hugely popular computer game), with a laptop level with his handlebars.

A lifelong gamer and cycling nut, when Zwift emerged in 2014 he fell for it hook, line and sinker. He used a tax rebate to buy a full Zwift set-up (you need to pay a monthly £12.99 subscription and, ideally, a smart trainer that measures power) and began streaming his training online to Zwift’s nascent community. That moved onto commentary of racing by the summer of 2015, and he now hosts races round the world on his own site zwiftcommunitylive.com.

“I thought, ‘I’m a pro cyclist, I know how to talk about cycling, and I know how to talk about this thing I’m watching,’” he tells Cycling Plus during a time-out from the commentary booth. “I took a microphone I already had, bought a green screen [to overlay himself onto a background of the game] and began commentating on Zwift races for the community that showed up.”

Fast forward four years and he’s in a seat in a London TV studio normally taken by Gary Lineker during BT Sport’s football coverage. “Did I think I’d end up on British television four years later?” Guerra says, repeating our question: “No.”

… a pause. Then…

“I thought it’d be US TV first.” He rolls about in his chair in hysterics. “I’m kidding!’

He’s laughing, but it perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When you step back and come at this from an eSports perspective, eRacing in a studio like this doesn’t seem so unlikely. If anything, it’s quite modest. Last summer, at The O2 arena in Greenwich, 32 people (whittled down online from a staggering 20 million entrants) tapped it out for a cool $250,000 top prize at the FIFA eWorld Cup, in front of 3,500 people in the arena.

Videogames have become professionalised, with life-changing amounts of money on offer. Guerra says arenas are being built in the US right now for eSports. Prize pots are huge, and rising; at the eWorld Cup, prize money is up from £20,000 in 2016.

FIFA the game is a long way from the real thing, but it features many elements of what we often see in sport: dexterity, fast-thinking, even the stamina needed to survive brutal match schedules. There’s even doping and match-fixing for those who like a tawdry scandal to go with their sport.

If your first reaction is, ‘Really?’, consider that, with vast amounts of money and fame on offer, why wouldn’t they be doping? FIFA sent drug testing officials to the O2, on the hunt for cheats using videogame-specific drugs such as Adderall, a focus-boosting stimulant used to treat ADHD. No need for blood boosters of human growth hormone here, of course.

This year the English Premier League launched the ePremier League, giving fans of Premier League clubs the chance to represent them in FIFA. The finals were broadcast on Sky Sports. Both FIFA and the EPL have spotted an opportunity to not only capitalise on the eSports boom, but to boost the traditional game.

Back in cycling and the UCI is also waking up to the possibilities, pledging to create an eRacing World Championships.

The importance of eSports to the future of cycling seems very apparent. Take the winner of the FIFA eWorld Cup, Mosaad Aldossary, a Saudi Arabian teenager: his age and nationality are crucial to the reason why sports governing bodies are so keen to put their heft behind such competitions. eSports unite the world, at low cost, within a community, which can only help cultivate the next generation of fans. In a world where even bike racing is held behind costly paywalls, and the top Premier League season tickets cost the same as a kidney, eSports are an entry point for bringing in the next generation.

Picture by Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com - 28/03/2019 - Cycling - British Cycling Zwift eRacing Championships - Here East, Olympic Park , Stratford, London Cam Jeffers
Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

As Min points out, though, in this context fans aren’t the same as participants; by that he means getting someone to watch, say, a football match through eSports isn’t the same as getting them onto a football pitch. The unique thing about eRacing is it’s a game and a physical workout at the same time, with many overlapping elements between real and virtual racing. FIFA gamers watch the sport because they’re players too, so to be a fan of eRacing will almost certainly make you a participant too.

Doing it for the Kids

It’s this that makes the possibilities with Zwift so intriguing.

“Fewer kids are getting into sport because they’re probably playing Fortnite,” believes Min. “Let’s use the very thing that’s keeping kids from playing outdoors to get them to participate in competitive sport.”

Zwift has waived the usual £12.99 a month to under-16s.

“We’ve thousands of kids on it for free,” says Min. “We want them to use gaming, something they’re comfortable with, to motivate them to exercise.”

Guerra says eRacing is a “massive opportunity” to grow cycling. “The kids aren’t watching basketball in the US, or cricket here, they’re watching and playing eSports. I coach a NICA mountain bike team (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) back home and they all ride Zwift because they love videogames. There’s a way to grow cycling with the youth this way.”

Winning over the youth might well be easier than convincing the older crowd, who, raised on a diet of heroic road racing feats or even the bicycle as one of the great utilities, might view eRacing with deep suspicion. Watching people pedal away on turbos in a dark studio leaves the cynics ice cold. Guerra aims for the root assumptions when trying to change their mind.

“Someone says, ‘This isn’t real cycling.’ But what is real cycling? Most people talk about it as a mode of transportation. For me cycling is sitting on a bike and pedaling. Getting somewhere might be a benefit of cycling if you enjoy that aspect, but I’ve always just enjoyed suffering and being competitive. It’s why I ride my bike. The cynics are like, ‘You should be outside!’ Why?”

From a spectator point of view, Guerra argues the attraction is the same as any sport: seeing the best of the best go toe to toe. “Why do we watch the Olympics? Because it’s the quintessential top end of that craft. It’s the same with Zwift. I’d
also say: go and race a Zwift race, then come back and talk to me. Experience it. They’re some of the hardest sessions I’ve ever done on a bike.”

One spectator at the British Nationals was Daily Telegraph cycling journalist John MacLeary. “I can see how people may find it fun to watch this kind of thing in small halls, like roller racing, but I think Zwift needs to improve a few things if it expects people to watch it on TV,” he says. “That said, it still blows my mind that people watch other people playing computer games online, so what do I know?”

Zwift, Guerra says, is already becoming more specialised, and will only continue to move in that direction as the gameplay is refined and nuanced in terms of tactics over brute force, something that could make it more interesting for viewers. It’s not all about the power even now, with Cameron Jeffers, who won the men’s national title despite only finishing 12th in the online qualifier earlier in the year, benefiting from pre-race research.

“I knew I didn’t necessarily have the [power] numbers, but the advantage that I could get over the four guys is course knowledge and knowing where to put the power down. I’ve done a lot of course research, a lot of riding and racing on Zwift and researching the different PowerUps. So, all of that put together, I managed to pull off the win.”

Guerra continues: “It’s becoming more of its own thing, being able to understand how to draft, knowing the courses and where to attack, knowing how the avatars respond. There is a learning curve in the genre like any sport and we saw that in the KISS Super League – pro teams coming up against Zwift community teams, and losing!”

The British Nationals had a mix of pro teams such as Madison Genesis and specialist Zwift community teams and the latter had a good night, with silver medals for James Phillips (Canyon ZCC) and Mary Wilkinson (KISS Racing Team) behind Jeffers and former rower Rosamund Bradbury (Threo X Sigma Sports).

Wilkinson, who is a former runner, got into cycling through Zwift three years ago, and added road racing to her life last season. Her story is a textbook example of what British Cycling is aiming for with its partnership with Zwift: exploring a whole new avenue to maximise interest in the wider sport.

“I see this championship as just the start of much bigger things to come, its popularity is growing every day,” she said.

Madison Genesis pro Jon Mould comes at eRacing from the other direction, a road and track professional who, before he discovered Zwift in 2017, would avoid turbo trainers at all costs.

“I didn’t get into cycling for the training, it was always about the racing. Zwift gives both at the same time,” he says. Of the future of races like the National Champs, he says it’s got legs. “It’s really new so it’s still not perfect. But then road cycling’s been going for 100 years and that’s still got issues. It’s going the right way.”

MacLeary continues: “There are a lot of people who are all too eager to criticise the eRacing phenomena, which I can understand, but if it encourages new people to the sport, or helps those who are nervous about riding on the roads to get in the saddle, then why not?

“Cycling – both as a recreational pastime and a sport – is a very broad church and I think we need to remember that. eRacing isn’t going to replace road racing, it’s just another chapter in the sport. That’s all. We should be encouraging people to ride – whether that’s a short commute, down the park on a BMX or messing about on a unicycle, not just saying, ‘They’re
not real cyclists.’”

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On this point, Min argues it’s a healthy conversation to have. “You have the old guard, who are wondering whether this should be a sport or not? I would say, if it’s getting more people into cycling, then it’s good news for everyone.”