Part One: Zwift eSports Ruleset Change Excludes Racers Under 16

When attempting to find the proper balance in this complex and complicated debate, it is essential to ask, “Are our kids worth it?”

Compliments of North Dallas Forty Movie Clips 1979

According to a CDC report, the prevalence of childhood obesity is 19.3% and affects 14.4 million children and adolescents in the United States alone. The ongoing stress, fear, grief, uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavily, with many children and teens having difficulty coping emotionally.  

 

I commend Zwift’s foresight in providing an online healthy gaming experience for our youth under 16 free of charge. The positive impact upon the health and mental well-being of the younger generation is profound, especially during these uncertain times.      

 

Zwift’s mission to “make more people, more active, more often” is worthy of acknowledgment. Youth are the lifeblood of our great sport. Providing an environment to introduce cycling and bike racing to a greater number ensures the future and potential for growth and enhancement of the athlete, the individual, and the sport.    

 

A video game that promotes a positive, healthy lifestyle and a venue for education in cycling basics and competition is genius. Introducing young cyclists to eSports and nurturing their interest and talent will create a generation of athletes with a deeply ingrained love and trust for virtual competition. Denying that to our children in any capacity is nothing if not worthy of debate.  

 

Whether you call it cycling, a video game or a business, the potential negative ramifications upon health, wellness, and the future of eSports are evident.

Our Children Have Rights

As our children spend more significant amounts of time on the internet, it is vital to appreciate what children’s rights mean in a digital world.  The Benefits of Playing Video Games are well studied. They include the ability of young people worldwide to enjoy a shared activity, connect with friends, and engage their families to spend quality time playing and exercising together.

 

Recent research on Teens, Technology, and Friendships shows that online gameplay is second to social media as a digital venue for adolescents to meet new friends, emphasizing social importance.

 

As the platform evolves, there is an essential responsibility to enhance children’s lives and contribute to their well-being while eliminating concerns of potential harm. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty globally, defines that children merit specific protection due to their physical and mental maturity. Among those responsibilities are:

And last, but certainly not least.

Recent updates to the Zwift Racing League 2021/22 ruleset were announced, including a change impacting racers under the age of 16.  The decision to exclude racers under the age of 16 from participating in the ZRL upheld the child’s right to protect the privacy and personal information at the sacrifice of all others.  

 

The question of balancing children’s right to play, participate and express themselves while protecting them from discrimination and abuse or violations of their right to privacy and freedom from economic exploitation is a difficult one.  

 

This decision and subsequent response to criticism, however, have created more questions than answers.  While I admit that the questions are complicated and many have no perfect solution, there is a balance that I am confident can be achieved, but it will require tremendous resources and commitment.

History and Background

On Tuesday, September 7, 2021, WTRL posted the following announcement on the WTRL Zwift Racing League Facebook group page.

ZWIFT RACING LEAGUE 2021/22 RULESET

We have just released the updated ruleset for the forthcoming 2021/22 Season which can be found here: https://www.wtrl.racing/zwift-racing-league/#rules

 

Additions and amendments can be identified in red font.

3.2.1 

Riders must have reached sixteen (16) years of age by the event start date to be eligable to participate in any Zwift Racing League events.

The post didn’t mention the rule change affecting Junior racers, but it did set off a firestorm of comments regarding the subject.  After more than 60 comments, the vast majority criticizing the decision, and the WTRL in particular, this statement was made by the WTRL immediately prior to turning off the comment period.

“The decision around minimum age is not WTRLs to make. There are many other fundamentals and legal requirements behind these decisions and junior events of any kind fall under these (regardless of organizer, platform, or country).

At this point, the published rules are the ones in play for the forthcoming season and if any amendments are made, this will be announced.”

The debate spilled over to Zwift forums where the thread “Children in ZRL” races remains active at this time.

 

On Thursday, September 9, 2021, Charlie Issendorf, Event Director at Zwift, released the following statement on the WTRL Zwift Racing League Facebook group page.

“We are aware of the feedback from the Zwift Community in response to the age rule that has been implemented for the upcoming Zwift Racing League.

This rule states, Riders must have reached sixteen (16) years of age by the event start date to be eligible to participate in any Zwift Racing League events.

The rule has been implemented to comply with multiple legal requirements to protect minors online in various global jurisdictions. We will continue to follow compliance regulations, and if an opportunity arises where riders under the age of 16 are able to compete in ZRL, then we will review at that time.

We understand that this rule is frustrating for our younger Zwifters, however, this ongoing work will make sure that Zwift continues to be a fun & safe place for all to ride, train, and race.”

I reached out to Steven Milliken of WTRL Race Control for comment shortly thereafter.  He directed me to Zwift’s Official Statement on the subject noted above.  Upon follow-up, Steven was reluctant to elaborate, except to say the following.

“The abuse that WTRL has received from certain members of our ‘friendly’ community is totally unjustified.

There is nothing more to say other than the Zwift statement and no WTRL side to tell.

WTRL, like Zwift, takes Child protection extremely seriously and has every intention of following the legal requirements to protect minors.”

The Reaction From the Zwift Community

The reaction from the Zwift racing community was swift, stern, and made it clear that this is a hotbutton issue for many.  The comments ranged from greed to grumpy old men tired of being beat by kids, but the prevailing theme focused upon the why and how can Zwift make this right.

 

Brain Owens of the United States had these comments.

“No one is perfect and WTRL’s ZRL has been great. I think Zwift handled this poorly and needs to do a better job of catering to the race community and understanding that these are usually some their most passionate users. There is obviously a need to attract all types of users, but I think Zwift needs to give WTRL more resources to have additional staff to handle the relationship side of running ZRL and their other leagues.

I think Zwift would benefit by giving bigger clubs the opportunity to run events themselves whether that’s a race or a group ride. Second, if WTRL is going to be the only third party with this much access then Zwift needs to take on the responsibility of making it as professional as possible, and making sure the project is staffed to run effectively internally, but also externally user facing.”

Brian Owens

Neil Tucker of Liverpool, England had this to say.

“Potentially we could have all youth teams enter under the supervision and organisation of a suitable adult (using child accounts) with parental consent. Unfortunately, it would be irresponsible to allow minors to join adult teams (which more often than not involves using private Facebook and discord servers).

Neil Tucker

Aelwen (Stuart) Davies of Wales, UK has a personal history in youth development and said this.

“Junior cyclist are more than capable of racing Zwift at any level. As a responsible parent and coach I ensure my daughter used youth gear restrictions in line with British Cycling/ Triathlon guidelines (7.45m) so she often spins out on the flat sections, but this really doesn’t matter. Zwift is an essential training tool especially when the roads are so dangerous and female safety is a factor.”

Aelwen (Stuart) Davies

Statement From Zwift Public Relations

I reached out to Chris Snook, the head of Zwift PR, for his comment which relayed as a common theme Zwift’s responsibility as an organization to protect the welfare of children on its platform.

“We are aware of the feedback from the Zwift Community in response to the age rule that has been implemented for the upcoming Zwift Racing League. This rule was updated as a result of changes we are making to better safeguard our community of junior Zwifters and to ensure that we continue to comply with international legislation designed to protect minors online and make sure that Zwift continues to be a fun & safe place for all to ride, train and race. We are proud to be able to offer Zwift to under 16's free as part of our mission to make more people, more active, more often but we recognize this rule change comes as a disappointment for our younger Zwifters.

To tackle your questions on WTRL, the changes to rules for the Zwift Racing League are linked to our child privacy policy. The changes apply to WTRL as a third-party race organizer and therefore will not apply to all racing on Zwift. WTRL is a highly professional and valuable partner to Zwift and has been a leading champion for Zwift community racing for many years. We are grateful for their continued support in making the Zwift Racing League a reality for many thousands of Zwift racers.”

Chris Snook

Zwift’s Children’s Privacy Policy

Mr. Snook referred to the Zwift Children’s Privacy Policy when substantiating the reason for the decision. Last updated on January 17, 2020, the policy outlines how Zwift collects, uses, and shares information from a “Children’s Account.” Accounts that Zwift allows parents to set up for their children.

 

The policy applies only to Children’s Accounts set up for children between the ages of 5 and 16. When a child turns 16, they can manage their account independently which provides insight into the under 16 designations in the recent eSports ruleset changes.

 

The policy also provides further basis for the decision in section 3. b. regarding Sharing with Other Third Parties, which states the following.

 

Information we collect may be shared outside of Zwift in limited circumstances. Children’s Account data will not be shared, sold, or made available to third parties unless one of the following applies, For External Processing, Ownership Changes, and For Legal Reasons.

 

The wording and terminology are broad and leaves much room for interpretation, but the condition of usage for external processing to follow is most relevant.

 

We provide personal information service providers to process it for us, based on our instructions and subject to other appropriate confidentiality and security measures.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA): An Example

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA, which went into effect in 2020, is a U.S. law protecting the privacy and personally-identifying information of children under the age of 13 who use online services.

 

The law governs the use of data from children under the age of 13. The regulation is stricter than those governing individuals over 13 and offers parents the ability to monitor and approve the information their children share.

 

Some sites attempt to avoid complying with COPPA by simply banning young users altogether. Sites that do not expressly appeal to those under-13 are not subject to COPPA’s rules. However, if an online service is directed toward a general audience but has knowledge of the collection of personal information from children under 13, they must be compliant.

 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlines a “Six-Step Compliance Plan For Your Business” on its website. COPPA is used as an example to illustrate the strict compliance mandates imposed on online services.  

 

The individual policies of Zwift’s International client base and each State are beyond the scope of this report and the reporter’s expertise. In each case, however, you will find policies and procedures to provide the opportunity for online entities to offer legal and compliant services to minors.

The Question of Diversity and Inclusion

Lisa Bourne, Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Social Impact at Zwift, was interviewed for an article published September 9, 2021, on triathlete.com. Ms. Bourne made an impassioned plea to the endurance industry when asserting that “Everyone Should Have Equal Access to the Sport.”  

 

Ms. Bourne stated, “ We’re focused on driving inclusion and participation from women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ riders who have traditionally been excluded from the cycling landscape.” In addition, Ms. Bourne highlighted the positive initiatives focused on race and underserved communities.

 

The addition of Ms. Bourne highlights Zwift’s commitment to being an open-access platform, and the initiatives implemented are exceptional and deserving of praise. The recent partnership with USA Cycling to increase inclusion in cycling is one of them.

On September 7, 2021, USA Cycling and Zwift announced a partnership to increase access and inclusion in cycling. Zwift and USA Cycling will be joining forces to create a new scholarship for underrepresented cyclists. The new program will offer a full-tuition scholarship for one underrepresented athlete to allow them to join the USAC Olympic Development Academy (ODA) program in 2022.

 

In addition, Zwift has come on board as a financial supporter for the upcoming virtual series of USA Cycling Inclusion Conversations, beginning Sept 10th.

 

David Lipscomb is a Head Coach at CIS Training Systems, a Bicycling Magazine Membership Coach, and trains many eSports athletes. In addition, Coach David is the USA Cycling Diversity Strategy Consultant and a keynote speaker at the USA Cycling Inclusion Conversations.

 

During our recent interview, David shared his belief that “secondary levels of diversity are as or more important than the primary race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.” When making policy changes, David advises that it is essential to ask, “Does this support some, or does it support everybody?”

 

I asked David about the recent changes to the eSports ruleset affecting Junior racers, and this was his impassioned plea.

“Inclusion applies to everyone... regardless! And if juniors were excluded from a virtual event, that is clearly exclusion!”

My appeal to Ms. Bourne for comment on the issue was unanswered.  As was my request for comment from Zwift’s Chair of Cycling eSports Dr. George Gilbert.

Conclusion - More Questions Than Answers

Whether you feel that children have rights, deserve to be included, and believe that Zwift’s rationale for the change is a “nothingburger” ( as eloquently put by a disgruntled commenter), or not, it is difficult to deny that there are several inquiries that deserve investigation.  

The announcement’s timing, which left team managers scrambling to fill rosters and forced to give their junior riders the bad news when it was not an issue during any of the previous seasons, is one.  Another is that the folks at WTRL were left on an island to deflect the salvo of cynicism without support for several days.  Choosing a third party to implement your flagship competitive event, knowing that your policies exclude a subset of your base, is yet another.  For a company that prides itself on its inclusivity, the choice to alienate its future fanbase is inconsistent, if not short-sighted.

If you are a member of the friendly vocal minority of racers, you are asking yourself, “Why has this happened again?”  When policy and rule changes back the competitive community into a corner, repeatedly making them fight for what they feel is right. They are left to feel as if they require representation to ensure equal access to the sport.

Oh yeah, here’s another.  Why are kids still allowed to ride in the WTRL TTT?

Then there is the bigger question.  If there were a feasible option or alternative for Junior racers, or a plan in place, before the announcement, Zwift would have avoided this whole thing.

And the biggest question of all, “Are our kids worth it?”

What to expect in Part Two

In Part Two of the Zwift eSports Ruleset Change Excludes Racers Under 16 series I will provide suggestions to some of those questions with the help of professionals in the youth cycling development and policy.

Your Thoughts

Are the kids worth it or is this issue a nothingburger?  Comment below!  Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

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[…] regulations like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection (COPPA) Act described in Part One of this series, and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) adopted by the EU are at their basis essential […]

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