UCI's Landmark Decision: UAE-based MyWhoosh to Organize Cycling Esports World Championships 2024-2026
On August 17, 2023, the Union Cyclist Internationale (UCI) announced that it awarded the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships to the cycling esports platform MyWhoosh for the next three years. The United Arab Emirates-based MyWhoosh will be the exclusive organizer of the 2024 through 2026 events. The partnership includes qualifying rounds and a live final in Abu Dhabi.
The news hit like a bomb, sending waves of shock and “wuh?” reverberating through the virtual cycling and esports community. The reactions were a combination of denial and surprise despite reports that this tender process differed [Cycling Weekly, May 17, 2023]. The bidding was open to commercial entities and speculation for the first time since the Esports World Championship’s inception in 2020. Zwift had legitimate contenders, and the process wasn’t a predetermined formality.
The tender deliberations dragged on well past the original July 19, 2023 deadline, confirming the decision warranted significant debate among the involved parties. The final three contenders included a commercial partnership between the Tour de France’s Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) and a National Governing Body. The complexity of the requisite commitment and coordination with a virtual cycling platform provider proved too much to solidify the bid.
That left Zwift and MyWhoosh.
“The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has awarded the rights for the organization of the 2024, 2025, and 2026 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships based on criteria which encompass a broad scope of aspects, including the bidding company, the platform, performance verification, promotion and broadcasting, financials,” states the UCI.
The UCI Chose MyWhoosh
The platform is known for hosting big-money events, like the weekly Sunday Race Club series, with a monthly prize purse of over $90,000 spread across three categories, two genders, and team and individual classifications. The $1 Million MyWhoosh Championship series in April 2023 boasted the largest payout in cycling esports’ history. [road.cc, April 18, 2023]
Founded in by CEO Akhtar Hashmi in 2019, MyWhoosh prioritized high-level esports racing and embraced the evolution of the sport as a legitimate distinct cycling discipline from the start and has maintained a steady course. [Cycling News, May 13, 2022] MyWhoosh is a product of Avrioc Technologies, an Abu Dhabi-based company. They are also the creators of comera, a communication app that includes text, chat, and video features; Hyre, an app for recruiting freelance talent; and Labaiik, a grocery shopping application.
UAE prioritizes the health and wellness of its citizens, with Dubai striving to be one of the world’s fittest cities, with hundreds of gyms and training facilities. The annual Dubai fitness challenge launched in 2017 encourages residents to exercise 30 minutes daily over 30 days as part of a nationwide wellness initiative—a government-led initiative that reflects Dubai’s commitment to becoming one of the world’s most active and dynamic cities.
UAE is Undergoing a Cycling Revolution
The country is one of the most liberal and progressive in the Gulf, differing from other Middle Eastern countries in many aspects. In 2020, the United Arab Emirates normalized relations with Israel, paving the way to establish business relations, direct flights, scientific cooperation, and, in time, full diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level. In February 2021, the country was the fifth to reach Mars and the second to enter its orbit on the first attempt successfully.
UAE is committed to increasing its focus on technology and creating new sectors to move away from dependence on the diminishing oil economy. First Abu Dhabi Bank is the United Arab Emirates’ largest lender. The government and ruling family have significant stakes in the bank, which blurs the line between state and private enterprise.
At the top is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, arguably the Arab world’s most influential leader and a cyclist. The collective group behind MyWhoosh loves the sport, makes strategic financial decisions with real impact and returns, and is passionate about bringing health, wellness, and fitness into their community. The Crown Prince is an avid competitive cyclist who utilizes the services of a professional coach and races and trains on MyWhoosh.
The cycling infrastructure investment, including a velodrome, earned Abu Dhabi the UCI’s coveted Bike City designation, becoming the first in the Middle East or Asia. The group is part-owner of Colnago and funds the men’s and women’s WorldTour Team Emirates. Abu Dhabi won the bid to host the 2028 Cycling Road World Championships.
Sources indicate that the group, supported by the First Abu Dhabi Bank, was also ready to invest in Zwift. They planned to allocate a substantial amount for developing esports on the platform before becoming disenchanted by the perceived lack of commitment.
Zwift’s esports division underwent significant restructuring after the group pulled out. Funds weren’t funneled to the division, and the capital seeded the creation of MyWhoosh. MyWhoosh’s esports-centric mission has been evident since and highlights the divergence between the two companies.
In 2021, Zwift’s head of PR, Chris Snook, explained the platform’s position on racing, saying that Zwift is not competitive esports-focused and that the majority use the platform solely as a training aid. Stating that 80% will explore and free ride, 50% will train or complete a workout, and only 20% will compete, justifying the business decision to devote resources elsewhere.
When Zwift went outside the company to partner with indieVelo for performance verification, it was another example of the company’s vague view on esports. Less than two months earlier, Snook said, “Our commitment to delivering the very best racing experience of the highest integrity remains unchanged. We will continue to invest in performance verification, and both ZADA and the Zwift Cycling Esports Commission will continue to uphold those standards for the foreseeable future.” [The Zommunique, August 14, 2023]
According to LinkedIn statistics, MyWhoosh has seen significant growth in its workforce, increasing by 31% YOY from 85 to 111 employees. The main areas of expansion include engineering, with a 147% increase to 34 employees; Art and Design, up 35% to 50 employees; and Marketing, which grew from 1 to 5 employees in a year. This growth, primarily in Product and Marketing, demonstrates a clear investment in the company’s development path.
The increases in research and development (R&D), design, and marketing areas underscore MyWhoosh’s intent to expand and invest further in its product. As do plans to double their tech recruiter team to 8—signals the intention to grow the tech talent acquisition capacity, knowing that each tech recruiter potentially recruits between 50 and 70 software developers per year is another sign of the willingness to sustain the investment in engineering.
In contrast to MyWhoosh’s growth, Zwift has experienced a decrease in its workforce (including two widespread downsizing events), with an overall reduction of 13% YOY. The impact has been widespread, affecting several areas including marketing (-28% to 33 people), media and communication (-30% to 26 people), as well as engineering (-9%), IT (-22%), and quality assurance (-17%). [Source: LinkedIn-data approximations to illustrate trends don’t reflect freelance or contracted employees]
Resources allocated for developing hardware like ZwiftPlay and the gamified experience appeal to the next generation of video gamer subscribers and widen the gap to racers, leaving them to wonder what if. [The Zommunique, June 13, 2023]
The cycling esports platform indieVelo’s implementation of innovative race and credibility enhancements, like multiple race formats, individual event creation, unparalleled draft mechanics, and built-in dual recording, in a few short months while still in Beta offers a glimpse.
Zwift’s Undeniable Contribution to Esports
Yet, Zwift’s contribution to the origin and evolution of cycling esports is undeniable, prompting the fallback statement, “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 dedicated members of Zwift’s esports division are not to blame, as their commitment to the sport and its athletes is unwavering. Unfortunately, they can only work with the resources and mandates provided to them.
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+.
However, this is not a moment to dwell on past successes.
The UCI’s Long-Term View
The UCI may see it the same way. When asked if MyWhoosh’s financial and philosophical investment in the sport’s growth influenced their decision, the UCI stated, “In the context of the award for a three-year period, the medium and long-term vision and commitments towards the development of the discipline of Cycling Esports were particularly important.”
The route to the Esports World Championship has only begun for MyWhoosh. The platform has made wholesale changes over the past year and has evolved by leaps and bounds. The UCI believes MyWhoosh was positioned better than the other bidders and banking on a continued commitment to growth for the next three years and beyond.
However, it hasn’t been only downhill and tailwinds to this point. Technical glitches have caused issues on the platform, leading to the restart of the first stage of the high-profile men’s MyWhoosh Championship race after a crash. The game physics and draft dynamics are evolving, but there is a long way to go to approach Zwift or indieVelo with a realistic ride feel.
Elite racers have performance verification, authenticity, and credibility questions. Concerns about gender misrepresentation and exploitation are common among athletes. The perceived inequality leads many female athletes to compete elsewhere despite substantial cash incentives, which have adverse effects.
A “code of silence” around prize money hampers community engagement among riders. MyWhoosh has a fraction of Zwift’s user base and lacks social interaction. In addition, MyWhoosh has little experience organizing and broadcasting international competitions.
Esports-Focused Enhancements and Appeal
For the UCI, the opportunities to rectify inequities and lead the sport into the future through substantial investment and firm commitment far outweigh the negatives. The partnership with UAE Team Emirates brings the appeal of World Tour talent, the worldwide exposure of the sport’s most popular talent, and his immense social media following. A picture of Tadej Pagacar riding on a stationary trainer adorned a MyWhoosh email blast less than a day after the World Championship announcement.
The platform’s recent update added a new Belgium world, a revamped UI, and improved pack dynamics. The superb graphics will make for a good show. UCI branded elements are omnipresent on banners and logos. The platform embraces the partnership’s value to MyWhoosh’s brand and mission.
MyWhoosh’s updated Esports Cycling Ruleset [V2.0.0], effective in September 2023, aims to tighten performance verification and categorization and bring the platform up to speed with the UCI’s performance standards. The new pre-verification protocol includes a Power Passport Test, MyWhoosh’s version of Zwift’s ZADA testing. The forward-thinking improvements include a streamlined weigh-in procedure, a more rigid approved hardware list, video identity verification, and cycling identity validation through platforms like Strava, Training Peaks, and real-world results.
The ruleset promotes community engagement, an area where MyWhoosh falls short. Racers play a crucial role by participating in two weekly rides to be eligible for individual prize money. For team prize money, teams must host a weekly social ride or race with at least 3 team members, promoting rides via social media. Successful teams fostering platform growth will earn in-game jerseys.
The Difficult Questions
Did the UCI sell the Esports World Championships to the highest bidder? The question is fair, and the organization’s track record leaves them open to criticism. However, the stance is as unfair as it is easy and popular. There are many more factors than money and politics to consider.
Did the UCI award the Esports World Championship to the platform that demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the advancement of cycling esports and the financial resources to bring it to new heights?
The decision was a difficult one. Both platforms have much to offer despite appearing to be heading in different directions.
Was it the best thing for the sport? I really hope so. Competition in the space and the motivation to work collaboratively is a good thing. Only time will tell.
MyWhoosh and Zwift declined requests to contribute to this report.
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!