How virtual cycling platform Zwift created an enduring new esport
Online exercise and racing platform Zwift, which allows users to connect their bikes to training stands and cycle virtually alongside thousands of other people from the comfort of home, isn’t trying to replicate in-person racing. Instead, it’s creating a gamified new esport. During the pandemic, Zwift users doubled, and the company seized attention by hosting the first-ever virtual Tour de France, with nearly two dozen professional men’s teams and 17 women’s teams competing from around the globe. The marquee event illustrates Zwift’s strategy: Win over the pros to woo the populace. “The elite [athlete] helps establish the brand and gives us the credibility and authenticity to fuel the growth of the broader base,” says CEO Eric Min. Here’s a closer look.
During the pandemic, Zwift hosted esports versions of some of cycling’s biggest moments, including a virtual Tour de France and UCI World Championships. Zwift hopes to extend its relationship with UCI, which oversees Olympic cycling, into the 2024 Games.
When the company launched the Zwift Racing League last year, hosting weekly competitions for pros and amateurs, 1,200 teams signed up. This year, that figure jumped to nearly 1,800—a sign that people are coalescing around the sport. “If you look at traditional esports,” says Min, “the competitive nature and scene is born out of the community.”
Zwift’s virtual world supports more than 100,000 simultaneous riders, yet it offers them only eight maps. That’s by design: “Social density is important,” says Min. “When you create too many destinations for people, it becomes less interesting.”
To prevent cheating during races—such as lying about weight or using other methods to fool the system— Zwift teamed up with Amazon to build prototype software that analyzes performance data to spot falsified information.
The bikes and training stands that riders currently use are designed by other companies. But Zwift raised $450 million in 2020 to help fund development of its own hardware, putting it in direct competition with Peloton and giving it end-to-end control of its platform.
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