Measuring Success: UCI, IOC, and Zwift Weigh in on the Event's Impact and its Promising Future for Cycling Esports
The opening ceremony began with the International Olympic Committee’s words: “Today marks a historic moment in the World’s Sporting Journey as we raise the curtains to the first-ever Olympic Esports Week.” Five hundred thousand unique participants competed in the qualification events, which included over 3 million Gran Turismo laps driven and more than 450,000 games of Konami baseball.
One hundred thirty-one players from 64 countries participated in the live finals in Singapore between June 22 and 25, 2023—sixteen elite esports cyclists among them.
“A primary goal of the Olympic Agenda 2020 + 5 is to support and promote the development of virtual sports throughout the Olympic Movement,” says the IOC, and “This is why we have focused first on virtual and simulated sports games in the competition series.”
The cycling esports competition contested on the virtual platform Zwift was one of ten sports showcased during the Olympic Esports Series.
“The announcement of the Olympic Esports Series 2023 and Olympic Esports Week 2023 marked the next major step in supporting the development of virtual sports within the Olympic Movement and engaging further with competitive gamers,” notes the IOC.
All 16 cycling esports athletes were some of the best of what the sport has to offer and represented the fledgling discipline admirably. The cycling finalists took their rightful and deserved place in cycling history as inaugural Olympic esports competitors.
Zwift agrees, stating, “We are extremely proud to host the cycling events on behalf of the UCI at the Olympic Esports Series Finals in Singapore. The racing was fast and exciting, and the 16 cyclists who competed represent some of the very best Zwift competitors in the world. Zwift’s inclusion in this groundbreaking competition strongly affirms the work Zwift has done over the last eight years to develop elite-level competition and host races for the world’s best athletes.”
Zwift was the fitting backdrop for an event of this stature and magnitude. The industry-leading platform’s longstanding and ongoing collaboration with the UCI has evolved into the creation of the new discipline of cycling esports.
Zwift states: “Over many years, Zwift has committed to the advancement of cycling esports by investing in developing the core platform experience to make racing more enjoyable to participate in and more engaging to watch. Indeed our investments in broadcast production and distribution have helped take cycling esports to global audiences of cycling fans, helping shine a spotlight on this new discipline.”
The company has three UCI Cycling Esports World Championship events; the Virtual Tour de France-which brought gender parity to the Tour for the first time-and now an Olympic Esports Series to its credit. Zwift introduced cycling esports to worldwide audiences on Eurosport, SBS, JSports, NBC Sports Gold, and GCN+.
The esports cycling final showcased the compelling racing and shined a spotlight on the beauty of human competition previously obscured by basement walls and the distortion of webcams.
The show was a blockbuster on the grandest of stages presented to an audience of cycling dignitaries and decision-makers. Many in attendance hold the sport’s fate in their hands, including David Lappartient. The UCI President is Chairman of the IOC’s Esports and Gaming Liaison Group and is a member of the IOC’s general assembly.
The UCI states: “The Olympics Esports Week demonstrated what an exciting and innovative discipline cycling esports is for both athletes and audiences. The event was truly successful in terms of demonstrating an engaging and captivating new direction for the sport. The UCI indeed supports cycling esports to be included in future Olympic programs.”
Lappartient’s relationship with the IOC is favorable to cycling esports’ future, giving a significant leg up on the other sports highlighted during the Esports Series. It also sets the bar high, making Olympic-level expectations a daunting challenge with little room for error.
The racing didn’t disappoint. It nailed it, and the IOC took notice, saying, “The first Olympic Esports Week was a huge milestone in developing virtual sports within the Olympic Movement and connecting with the gaming community. We aim to continue this momentum, learning from what we have experienced here, to build on it further.”
Three pillars the sport’s foundation rests on are captivating competition, robust technology, and incontestable authenticity. The event needed to deliver on all three of the sport’s promises. It was the most inopportune of times not to learn from past mistakes.
The technology needed to be more robust. Bluetooth connection failures plagued several of the racers, who reported being unable to shift their Wattbike Atom smart bikes, among other issues.
The connectivity lapses proved catastrophic for racer Lisa Hermansson, who trekked from Sweden to Singapore only to sit idle as the race rolled off without her. The bikes lacked the fit adjustability required to accommodate all the finely tuned athletes.
By building on the momentum of the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship live event final in Glasgow and learning from its success, the organizers could have averted the problem. There the hardwired Wahoo KickR 6 smart trainers performed without a hitch. Sacrificing reliability for fleeting gain is detrimental to the sport’s long term viability.
The third pillar, authenticity, also took a hit. Multiple “photo finish” scenarios played out during the digital race. On separate occasions, the event broadcasters and the live audience witnessed a different result than what the back-end final standings revealed.
It got a second glance from the UCI, which stated, “There are, of course, still areas of improvement, one example being finish line imagery. All parties involved in the event are constantly working on identifying improvements as this new discipline evolves. The UCI engages with platform providers and all other concerned stakeholders to ensure that full support is provided for this new discipline and that fair and credible racing is guaranteed for all athletes.“
The UCI’s statement alludes to the precision of the game visuals a player perceives on their screen-a delicate balance between client-side and server-side structures. The server-side of a video game refers to the software that runs on the game’s servers. The server maintains a consistent game state across all connected clients in multiplayer and person-vs-person games.
Maintaining a consistent game state across all players can be challenging in client-side game architecture. Due to network latency, players might perceive different versions of the game world at the same time. For instance, two players might see each other in slightly different positions or occupying the same space, leading to confusion or perceived unfairness. The inconsistency can disrupt gameplay and negatively impact the player experience. Therefore, synchronizing game state across all clients is critical in multiplayer game development.
Virtual cycling platforms Wahoo-RGT and new-on-the-scene indieVelo, developed with an eye on the Olympic standard, are server-side. Zwift’s architecture is client-side, but the authenticity of the results is not affected, according to their representatives.
“Regarding the questions focused on the results, all results of cycling esports events hosted on Zwift are determined by Zwift’s servers, rather than the broadcast feed. Like all multiplayer online games, Zwift connects all racer’s local game clients together via a central server—whether athletes are scattered around the world, or riding next to each other in the same room.
Due to the varying connection speeds of each local game client and other factors that can cause latency, Zwift local clients predict the visual position of the avatars based on the last information received, and updates the position when it receives new data. Although these refresh rates are extremely fast, different game clients, including the broadcast game client, can show the avatars in slightly different positions.
For this reason, and because the finish of Zwift races almost always occur at high speeds, the results of all races occurring on Zwift are determined by the server results, even when that differs from what the broadcast client displays. The Zwift server is the source of truth and is accurate to the single millisecond.”
Photo finishes do occur in real-life racing. All finish line camera networks were switched to server-side architecture when international organizations deemed the unforgivable discrepancies below their competition standards. We must hold the authenticity of cycling esports and the caliber of the product to that standard if the sport is to succeed. It’s not acceptable or sustainable for the sport’s evolution.
Achieving Olympic medal status is how fans and the entities vested in the sport of cycling esports will define success in this context. The IOC’s public position is, “Currently there are no plans to include Esports in the Olympic Program.“
However, sources close to the situation paint a brighter picture of the future of cycling esports. If not for prioritizing the matters of Russian athlete eligibility, corruption allegations at the Paris 2024 headquarters, and the banishment of the International Boxing Association (IBA) from the Olympics during the June IOC Executive Meetings, there’s reason to believe we wouldn’t have to wait until Paris to celebrate the announcement.
The Olympic Esports Series will be a resounding success for Cycling Esports if it garners enough institutional support to clear a pathway to Olympic medal status. However, the game developers, international organizations, and all related parties must learn the lessons and make improvements to ensure the pillars of the sport are bulletproof and the foundation is bombproof.
Zwift wants to be involved in the conversation, saying, “Whether we see it at Olympic games in the future is a decision that rests with the IOC, but this was certainly a major step forward for esports. Of course, should the IOC decide to include esports at the Olympic games, it would be our strong ambition to be present.”
Is Zwift prepared to undertake the required enhancements? Their position might not be guaranteed, and alternative contingencies may have been arranged.
When asked about cycling esports at the Olympics, Zwift representatives added, “While much attention has been placed on the cycling events, I would also like to mention the duathlon exhibition races. We are also proud to be working in the Triathlon and Duathlon space with Superleague Triathlon and the ITU. Though the duathlon events weren’t part of the Olympic Esports Series finals, they are just as exciting a prospect and a true testament of athletic performance and the excitement of esports competition.“
It’s difficult to deny that cycling in the Esports Series was a testament to the Olympic spirit. The athletes laid it all on the line for their sport. Game developers and international organizations put their best foot forward but must take the next step. It will be a leap of faith for cycling esports.
As affirmed by the IOC, “The event was an opportunity for the sports, gaming, and esports communities to come together, share ideas, and find solutions to shared problems. It was a chance to introduce people of all ages to new sports and innovations.”
The sport of cycling esports that Zwift revolutionized and its athletes deserve to be proud. That’s a W in anyone’s book!
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, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!