Elite Esports Racer Brian Duffy Tells All it Takes to be Great!

I think Brian may have given away too many of his secrets!
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I appreciate the opportunity. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do? Where do you live? Family life, that sort of stuff.

Born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I grew up primarily as an endurance athlete — swam year-round as a kid and focused on running while in high school. Also, during high school, I discovered triathlon, thus starting a ~17-year career in the sport at the age of 15.

 

I competed in ~115 triathlons during my career across various distances (and across 26 states and six countries), although my specialty was the intermediate distance (also known as Olympic distance). I won the 2012 amateur national triathlon championship, and in 2013 finished as the world runner-up.

 

I also competed as a “professional” from 2017-2019, primarily racing the domestic Escape Series circuit plus some 70.3s. My time in triathlon raised my level as an athlete and allowed me to connect with amazing athletes and people worldwide.

 

One of my favorite triathlon memories was founding the Duke Triathlon Club while an undergraduate student at Duke University. I have a habit of “building,” and the integration of building an organization around a sport I loved was an incredible experience. By the time I graduated, we had 60+ dues-paying members, a structured training approach, ample university funding, and a fun group of athletes committed to growing as athletes and future leaders.

 

On a non-athletic front, I graduated from Duke with a B.S. in economics. From there, I entered into the financial services industry for about four years before pursuing my MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where I had a double concentration in Strategic Management and Finance — by far the best two years of my life!

 

The level of learning and engagement was unlike any experience I’ve had before, and I loved every minute of it. I then did a few years as a management consultant for Deloitte Consulting. The management consultant grind was tough but shaped my perspective on building organizations, transforming business models, and driving strategic growth. My tenure in consulting overlapped with my stint as a professional triathlete.

 

The weekly air travel to/from different cities did not lend itself well to the training necessary to compete at the highest level (nor did 12-14 hour workdays). Still, I found creative ways to maximize the limited time I had available (lots of interval run workouts in hotel parking lots).

 

I’ve now returned to the financial services industry where I work for one of the world’s largest asset management companies — I’ve moved around in various roles ranging from operations to digital technology to finance.

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What is your cycling story? How did you get involved in virtual cycling and eSports? Tell us about your eSports team.

I used Zwift as a training platform for a few years while competing as a triathlete. Given I was very tight on time, I found it an effective platform to execute high-quality workouts in tight windows. But once Covid struck, a good friend of mine who now doubles at times as a nemesis (Mike Egan from the Saris team) convinced me to try out Zwift racing.

 

I remember my first race was a Crit City event, and I got dropped! Humble beginnings, but I kept at it — training myself to get stronger and learning the unique craft that is eCycling—not swimming or running also helped my cycling legs!

 

Like my triathlon story, one of my favorite parts of eCycling hasn’t necessarily been the racing (although I do love good competition), but rather the opportunity to build a team and meet so many great athletes from around the world. In the winter of 2020-21, a couple of guys and I who met through Zwift started our own team, which has now morphed into NeXT eSport PB Enshored, the top team on the platform.

 

During the first few weeks of the team’s existence, there were only five of us, and we had little idea how to proceed. But slowly but surely, we grew our roster, crafted our brand, and improved our abilities. We noticed there was a unique opportunity to differentiate our team and embrace the gamer-meets-athlete vibe of eCycling. Our team now stands around 40 athletes, and although most of us have never met each other in person, we are, in many respects, brothers.

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The indoor specialist season is heating up. Are you excited? What have you been doing during the ‘off-season?’

We are incredibly excited. We are in first place through 5 weeks of the ZRL Premier League. We hope that we can close out this final week and bring home the season victory. We’ve also had a significant presence within the ZRL Community leagues, where our teams perform incredibly well every week.

 

We’re excited about how much our riders are improving as athletes and how well we are coming together as one team. We challenge each other every day. But we also support one another through good times and bad, and that’s what makes our team so special.

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What are your goals for the upcoming season, personally and for the team?

On a personal note, I simply want to keep developing as an athlete, both in terms of my power profile and my understanding of the game craft and the tactics that lead to successful outcomes. Winning races or placing well is always great, but sometimes you can win races despite making a mistake or losing a race despite near-perfect execution.

 

I view all races as opportunities to learn and do my best to figure out how to be 1% better tomorrow than I was today. More importantly, on a team level, I want to help my team win the Premier League, and I want to continue raising the profile of eCycling in general. We think there is a lot more than we can do to elevate the sport and drive engagement.

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You have accomplished so much in eSports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual cycling athletes?

I don’t think there is anything that unique other than an inner drive of constant personal development. When I started Zwift, I was an aerobic athlete — high cadence, good endurance, and a strong threshold. But I realized that profile wasn’t the most ideal for Zwift, and over the course of a year, I completely transformed myself to source my energy anaerobically.

 

I now consider myself more akin to a puncher who can compete with the best in a sprint and hang with the climbers on a tough hill. Constant short bursts of high power tend to be my favorite.

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You are considered one of, if not the best pure finishers in eSports. I want to take a deep dive into the topic of sprinting in virtual cycling. For a frame of reference, how tall are you, and approximately how much do you weigh in competition?

I’m about 5 feet 8 inches tall and roughly 144 pounds.

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What is your Peak Power and 15-second Power on the road and virtually? What is your PB during a race? Why do you think they are different?

My peak 15-second power indoors is around 1,080w (16.1wkg). I don’t race much outdoors, but I’ve found my outdoor power to be surprisingly comparable to what I can produce indoors. The main difference is that I sprint from the drops when outside, but indoors I sprint on the hoods.

 

Another difference I’ve discovered when outside is that my front wheel will fly off the ground if not careful. Fortunately, when indoor, I strap my trainer and front wheel down so that I don’t move!

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What is your go-to sprinting training workout, and when during the season do you focus on it? Do you do any specific off-the-bike training to improve your sprinting?

While a triathlete, I was a structured training machine, following a very tight program. An interesting thing with Zwift is that I hardly ever do proper workouts. My teammates often joke about how polarized my training is — I either race full out or ride easily under 150 watts. There’s rarely an in-between. I simply love racing, and that alone has helped me improve.

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There are many theories on proper form for sprinting indoors? Some say it is more up and down than side to side. Some stress the upper body, seated, standing, that sort of thing. Describe what gives you the most power when sprinting indoors. How does this differ from on the road?

When sprinting indoors, I am certainly out of the saddle. If you watch any of my streams, I tend to build my power and then go into “head down, full send mode” when I’m about 10-15 seconds out from the finish.

 

A lot of people watch their avatars while sprinting. Still, to hit peak power, I need to be entirely focused on giving every last ounce of energy and strength to my pedals and not distract myself with what’s going on on the screen — thus, my eyes are looking down, usually closed. It contrasts with how you would sprint outside, as you need to look where you are going!

 

Concerning up-down vs. side-to-side, I’d probably classify myself as the former. Before building a custom platform for my bike/trainer, I would often move my trainer a good 5 feet forward in the short 15 seconds I was sprinting — high levels of torque can do crazy things!

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Conflicting views on cadence and the ramp-up to the sprint also exist. Some feel you should drop to your heaviest gear and stomp, while others go for a high cadence spin-up. What do you do? Do you think it is dependent upon the type of trainer you use? Does the Zwift trainer's difficulty setting make a difference?

As mentioned earlier, the most significant transformation I’ve gone through has been from an athlete who sources energy aerobically to one that sources energy anaerobically. When I started Zwift, I would sprint at 115-120 rpm out of my ~15 gear.

 

As my legs became stronger, I started riding in lower and lower gears. I now exclusively sprint out of the 11, and if my cadence hits 91, I know that I am producing over 1,100w. This low cadence approach has worked well for me in indoor cycling and maximizes my physiological profile.

 

I am not sure how this approach varies by trainer, but I do not think trainer difficulty makes a difference. If the gradient at the finish is steeper, I will undoubtedly shift to a lighter gear, but I’m always aiming for the same degree of resistance to source my power.

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Success in esports depends largely on making the selections. What is your strategy with respect to pre-race preparation and training? Do you train for a specific power profile when you move indoors? If yes, what areas do you stress, 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes? How does that differ from outdoor racing and training?

It’s essential to have a strong profile from 15 seconds through 5 minutes. If you do, you can hang on 90% of the courses that will come your way. If you can sprint but can’t hold 3-5 minutes, you’ll get dropped on a punchy climb. If you can hang on for longer durations but can’t sprint, you’ll rarely win a race.

 

I have a pretty wide range which has allowed me to be a dynamic racer. My biggest opportunity is to continue improving on the very long climbs (20+ minutes).

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How much do you factor in the gamification side of eSports? Is there a learning curve that you must master? How vital are power-ups and other things unique to virtual cycling?

Gamification is vital, and our team takes that element seriously. I think that is what has allowed us to become so dominant. We all race often. But not only do we race often, but we also watch the film on our races and those of our teammates to pick up on tactics or strategies that work well on specific courses.

 

We treat eCycling as its own discipline for this reason — there is a feeling that you have to master, and that only comes through experience and practice. It’s the reason why top-level World Tour riders will typically be dropped in their first Zwift races, despite having the power.

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Many finishers have a mental checklist that they go through approaching the finale of a race. Pack position, timing, distance, visual cues, and such. What items do you check off as you prepare to unleash the beast?

Positioning toward the end is essential, and ideal positioning depends on the speed of the lead-in and the course. If I’m saving for a sprint, I tend to like to build up my momentum incrementally. I’ll start toward the end of the pack and then ramp up the power (going from 400w to 700w). Once I’m about 15 seconds out and ideally in the top quartile of the pack, I will put my head down and smash as hard as possible.

 

With the gain of momentum from working through the pack, paired with the slingshot effect from going past the top riders, I will usually generate top speeds.

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Do you believe that sprinting indoors is a skill that a racer can learn, or is it a matter of physical makeup and genetics? If yes, what did you do to perfect the craft? What tips would you give someone who wants to improve their virtual sprinting power and results?

As with everything, it’s a mix of both. I spent about 6-8 months learning the art of sprinting on Zwift. When I first started, I couldn’t get over 800 watts. But I’d be silly to say that it was all training — I certainly have some genetic talent that I was unaware of that has allowed me to produce substantial power outputs.

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You can’t win the race if you don’t make the front group. What are your training approach to endurance and sub-threshold work? What strategies do you use to conserve energy during the initial stages of a race? What do you do to smother the fire if you find yourself in the red early in a race?

As mentioned earlier, I don’t do much proper training anymore. Instead, I’ll select different types of races that will work with other energy systems. This way, I’ll be prepared for any race type. But using the draft is vital to conserve energy — everyone can be a hero early on; it’s essential to be patient.

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What do you consider to be the most challenging finish on Zwift? Why does it give you so much trouble?

Finishes with a slight downhill can be tricky because it becomes more about timing than raw power. Positioning and momentum will trump raw power output.

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It must be a ton of pressure to be the racer that everyone on the team depends upon to be there at the end and bring it home? Tell us a bit about that. How do you mentally approach a big race? Does a sprinter have to have a different mindset than a climber or breakaway specialist?

There can be pressure at times, but I find that I thrive on the pressure. I’ve raced hundreds of times at this point, and I just tell myself that this one is no different. Do what I’ve done countless times to be successful, and I’ll be okay.

 

Confidence is the key to racing well. I’ve also been fortunate this past season to have such stronger teammates that I know that we’ll collectively score well. Thus the race becomes less about one individual.

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There are many other tremendous eSport talents. How closely do you monitor the other powerhouses in the game, during the season and before a race? Is there a specific racer you know always brings it and that you will have to be on the top of your game to beat? Who do you consider to be your greatest rival?

I have a pretty good feel for the top guys, as we often race each other. Some of the more transactional riders- those who only compete in ZRL- can be trickier because you don’t get as much exposure to them in the regular community races.

 

But each of the top riders has their skillset, and it’s fun to think about their rider profile paired with the course profile that we’re competing on to anticipate what they might do. And having versatility as a rider is crucial as it can enable you to take advantage of that other rider’s weakness.

 

I’m not sure I have any main individual rival. Still, our team tends to compete against Saris often during the Americas morning time zone — we both have a decent US contingent that prefers to ride early mornings. Those races are fun.

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In entertainment, the saying goes that actors want to be rock stars and rock stars want to be actors. What type of rider do you consider yourself? Do you ever wish you were a climber or a sprinter if you are the opposite? Are there any other sports you wish you were great at?

I find myself to be a pretty versatile rider, although I wish I could do the long climbs a bit better (Alpe, Epic, etc.). As for other sports, I wouldn’t mind doing outdoor cycling! I’ve only ever competed in two races in my life. Triathlon consumed most of my competitive years. Thus I missed that chance.

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Some cynics and detractors don’t trust the legitimacy of eSports. What do you say to those who question your veracity and the ability for the playing field to be leveled between competitors? How about those who wonder why what they see on their screen doesn’t always look the same as the final results?

I think outdoor cyclists just need to realize that indoor cycling is a different discipline. Many top outdoor riders will discredit it if they can’t quickly convert to being successful on Zwift or if top riders on Zwift are strong without any outdoor background.

 

I think that’s a naive and limited perspective. Zwift is its own art form, and the type of power needed to be successful is very different from that required to do well in long stage races, for example.

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Virtual cycling and eSports have come a long way in a short time. What do you envision eSports will be like in five years? What is your vision for the future of eSports? What do you feel it will take to get it there? What are the challenges that eSports faces in becoming recognized as a trusted competition venue?

It’s a great question. I’m not sure where it is headed, but I feel my team — NeXT eSport PB Enshored — is vested in trying to help it find the next frontier. We’re hoping we can both help legitimize eCycling and showcase why it uniquely intersects video games and athletics. I think the sport can be very engaging and relatable to the weekend warrior, just as it has for other types of eSports worldwide.

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Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us one of your virtual racing secrets. Something you haven’t told anyone else before that helps make you better than the rest. Please?!?

Low cadence riding has helped keep my HR down — but it requires lots of leg strength development to do it effectively. In addition, I built a custom platform to keep my trainer and bike strapped down — this is critical when sprinting, as my trainer and bike used to move several feet.

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Is there anything else you would like to add as the indoor specialist season fast approaches on the topic of sprinting, eSports, Zwift, or anything else? You have the floor.

A big shout-out to our title sponsor, Enshored. They are a tremendous company that is one of the first non-cycling specific brands to associate themselves with eCycling and promote its growth. We need more companies like Enshored to power this great sport, and I’m proud to be partnering with such a pioneer.

That attitude — being innovative and an early adopter — is why they differentiate themselves in the corporate world, providing outsourcing services to start-ups. As a business leader myself, I understand how important it is, when trying to grow and scale a business, to have a trusted partner who can help manage your digital client experiences, back-end processing, and sales & marketing functions, among other things. Enshored provides these services to help founders execute their disruptive ideas.

Enshored sees the potential in our sport, and now it’s up to all of us to reach that potential.

Thank You, Brian!

For more great eracer interviews like this one check out the Esports page on The ZOM!

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