The creation of a Zwift Junior Racing League will prove that our kids ARE worth it!
If Zwift were an iceberg, what the general race community knows about running its business would be the tip. It is folly, pretentious, in my case reckless and irresponsible, to fool ourselves into believing otherwise.
As the friendly vocal minority feels its grip on an ideal virtual racing environment slipping away, however, the collective survival instinct struggles to keep its head above water. Its final unified gasp as signal flairs launched in social media comments and forum posts. Voicing our public opinion felt like the only life raft, and the current was sweeping it out of reach.
Below the surface, the countless layers of corporate complexity and decision-making working to keep Zwift afloat under the pressure of prodigious demands and unforeseen challenges. As the rays of success’ glow are bent as they pierce the threshold, it obscures the view above.
When the muffled shouts reach the ears of the captains of the ship, and they take a moment to peek above the water to listen, a view of the horizon is possible. Junior racers and youth cyclists are the future of eSports.
As the first generation of cyclists to grow up with the platform, there is tremendous potential. The time is now to commit to the virtual cyclists and eSports ambassadors of tomorrow before the ship has sailed.
The Challenges are Significant
Privacy 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 and necessary. The laws are adopted to protect individuals and allow awareness of how companies collect and use their personal information. Of course, it is much more complex than that, but suffice to say, it is a very good thing.
For an international company like Zwift, the challenge of remaining up to date with policy change and ensuring compliance is daunting. Keeping current with the nuance and subtlety of each country’s regulations and the variances among the states and regions is a daunting and intimidating task, especially when punitive fines and penalties exist.
It requires companies to scrutinize their practices and how data moves through their operation, is processed, and disseminated. The request for consent must be explicit and individualized as per the above constraints. The introduction of financial concerns increases that burden.
Tremendous resources are required to meet the standard. In many cases, companies will appoint a data-protection team to oversee the process. The commitment is considerable.
I am the first to admit that I am not an expert in this area, and my explanation is a simplified one. However, I know that countless international companies have made the commitment and thrive within the legal landscape.
The Creation of a Zwift Junior Racing League
For this report, I acknowledge that the task of compliance is significant and provide suggestions based upon the assumption of legal standards. The exclusion of Junior racers from the Zwift Racing League is the topic.
The creation of a Zwift Junior Racing league is the most popular and logical solution. Yes, it needs to be called the Zwift Racing league. The name makes a difference.
The ZRL is wildly successful for many reasons, the foremost being the incredible work of the WTRL team. The prestige of being associated with Zwift’s flagship racing league and the ability to compete in a unified competition is powerful. It isn’t enough to say that kids can simply continue to race in other races, and the outcry from the community when race organizers changed the rules is proof.
I reached out to the Director of one of the country’s premier youth cycling development programs for his help. Jed Kornbluth, a Zwifter from the beta days, is the executive director of the CT Cycling Advancement Program (CCAP).
The program has over 600 youth riders on 40+ teams based in schools and regional programs. The program has graduated riders to elite cycling programs such as Jamison Capital- Cannondale, CCB, ButcherBox Racing, and multiple collegiate scholarship programs.
A Statement From Youth Director of a USAC Center of Excellence
“Our program is a perennially recognized USAC Club of the Year and one of the few USA Cycling Foundation’s Centers of Excellence. It is broad-based, covering three seasons of outdoor riding and racing with hundreds of children across our state and now beyond, thanks to the addition of our Zwift Winter Program in 2020.
Our winter program was designed to introduce riders aged 12-18 to Zwift as a training tool. Professional cyclist Ben Wolfe, a coach with the Charles Coaching and Nutrition Services, designed a 15-week training program for a group of 31 eager junior riders. Many would also drop into open races such as the DIRT DADurday Chase Race as they learned the nuances of this wonderful training platform and sought out more opportunities to test their mettle against the rest of the Zwift population.
The program worked! Of the 31 riders, 11 subsequently registered and rode in all three of our outdoor seasons. Of the remaining riders, nine were among our 2-season group, 8 in a single outdoor season, and five were out of state or were unable to participate due to conflicts with other commitments. Additionally, 13 of the 31 were Top 5 riders in our spring MTB and summer Road series.
Our indoor program, which was 100% Zwift-based, gave these kids an opportunity to train and race together in a safe and organized fashion, away from dark, icy roads. This program created a new community within CCAP, with new lingo, inside jokes, and a common bond our group of 31 kids would carry into their outdoor seasons (along with their solid base!).
Before the rule change eliminating juniors under the age of 16, we intended to field as many junior teams as possible in the spring season of ZRL. We were forced to rework the plan to accommodate those kids, who are mostly 13-14 years old, into some sort of loosely organized racing teams without an organized series to latch on to.
I’ve asked folks at Zwift to clarify the reasons behind their inaction. The answers have fallen somewhere between concerns over privacy and safeguards against online predators, which I fully understand. How do the various esports gaming platforms like Fortnite, Overwatch, Valorant, Minecraft, and countless others manage to attract and provide a service to an ever-growing audience of kids to their games?
If the privacy concern is primary, that problem can be solved. At the CCAP, all of our coaches must be certified via SafeSport, an American 501c nonprofit organization set up in 2017 under the auspices of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017.
SafeSport seeks to address the problem of sexual abuse of minors and amateur athletes in the sport. We train our coaches in proper communication protocols with children and how to identify the behavior of abusers and predators. Perhaps the CCAP, along with our junior program peers from around the world and with the help of the folks at WTRL, is poised to help construct a youth-focused virtual cycling league on the Zwift platform. I submitted my proposal on a prior occasion.
Their existing team coaches can coach teams. Additionally, WTRL’s adult rider base can volunteer to coach these junior teams (as long as they are SafeSport certified, of course). The community will grow, increase mentoring opportunities, and provide an excellent opportunity for kids worldwide to experience the Zwift team environment.
The market for indoor youth racing is already here – in fact, Zwift built it! The only (tiny) barrier to entry is Zwift’s ability to process account requests per the current system, in which parents have to sign off on an annual consent waiver. Youth accounts can disable communication features, which checks the online safety box. Kids can still engage in supervised communication with each other via private servers on third-party sites like Discord or Zoom, just as they do with other games.
Given all of these potentially solved variables, “Why eliminate a ready and willing rider population from participating in this wonderful global phenomenon?””
I appreciate the suggestions from an authority who has dedicated his professional life to introducing our youth to a healthy lifestyle and nurturing the love of cycling. The impassioned plea denotes the negative impact of excluding children from engaging in physical activity and cycling in particular.
An opportunity lost which may never be available again. Once seized, the following guidelines take the legitimacy of the Zwift Junior Racing league to the next level. One that any child would be proud to compete in and any parent comfortable to let them.
Elements of a Safe and Appropriate Online Racing Venue for Children
- Information about community guidelines, privacy policies, and terms and conditions are easily accessible and visible. Highlight areas that pertain to children and parents and present information in a creative way that is interesting, simple, and understandable.
- Empower parents to be more in control of their child’s racing experience through education in how the game works, their child’s interaction with it and fellow competitors, and safe online behavior.
- Outline clear community guidelines on acceptable behavior. Emphasize these guidelines by identifying and actively managing inappropriate behavior during in-game communication.
- Enable community policing and user reporting of inappropriate content through ‘flagging’ mechanisms. Promote community involvement by providing prompt responses to reports, investigation outcomes, the ability to appeal decisions, and strict action against abusers.
- Encourage individual streamers to promote positive examples of appropriate online behavior and education and support an inclusive and nurturing environment.
- Creation of an online Youth Coach Licensing program whereby a Junior cyclist will race on a team under the supervision of a certified non-parent supervisor who has met education and training standards, undergone a background check, and has agreed to withhold the highest level of adult to minor conduct.
Another Not as Logical, But Feasible Solution
The creation of a distinct server to support Youth riders and Junior racers is another option. While this possibility requires a more significant level of commitment and utilization of resources, it is a surefire way to insulate children from inappropriate interaction.
The formation of an additional server ensures no interaction between minors and adults and provides separation from the primary game server. The unique domains allow physical and digital insulation of youth user data and eliminate adult’s and children’s ability to co-exist in-game.
The potential for creative gamification and educational opportunities are boundless. Zwift meets Fortnite meets Big Brain Academy. What do you think?
If you are a cycling parent and had the choice between one of those shooting games and a video game that promotes a healthy lifestyle for your child, “Which would you choose?” Now imagine that your child gets hooked. To the point that they developed a love for racing, and especially the chance to say they competed in THE Zwift Racing League.
Would your child be disappointed? Turned off to racing or cycling, altogether, perhaps. How would that make you feel? Angry, upset, undermined, or worse, left wondering if you had lost the chance to instill the virtues of a healthy lifestyle in your kid. The decision deprived you of the opportunity to cultivate a passion for our great sport and share it with them and their children.
That would be a tragic mistake with negative consequences of titanic proportions.
Do you support the creation of a Zwift Junior Racing League?
Would your child join in? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!