Zwift and its links to esports in triathlon are en vogue right now – it powers the Super League Triathlon Arena Games as well as a number of cycling events.
SLT and World Triathlon’s partnership with the Arena Games also has a target of trying to get that into the 2028 Olympics. Ambitions do not get loftier than that.
But as the power of the medium increases, how does Zwift ensure that the playing field is level for all athletes with no opportunity for cheating.
Tech one step ahead
Craig Taylor, the company’s Director of Growth Marketing for Running and Triathlon, says it’s vital the company’s technology stays one step ahead.
Speaking to six-time Kona king Mark Allen on his ‘Mondays With Mark Allen’ series, Taylor said: “We want to create fair racing that people enjoy watching, that they don’t call into question.
“We are highly incentivised to put safeguards in place, so that there isn’t any chance of cheating.
“It’s been around since the beginning of sport and it’s our job to try to help prevent that.
“There are two different types of cheating that we are looking out for here. One is performance enhancing biological cheating and the other is technical cheating, mechanical cheating.”
Biological cheating, essentially doping, is managed by the same rules as outdoor competition with the World Anti-Doping Agency having jurisdiction, with in and out of competition testing.
Zada leads the fight
But to combat technical or mechanical cheating, Zwift has set up Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis (Zada).
Taylor gave the example of how Zwift governs its elite cycling events such as the UCI Esports World Championships.
He explained: “Every rider is required to submit their weight two hours prior to racing as well as their height. Those are the two factors that go into the game and help determine the speed of your avatar and your watts.”
Zwift has also developed what Taylor called digital passports for each rider.
He said: “We can see their training rides, we can see their other races they are doing on Zwift, and we also require them before a competition to do a baseline test, both on Zwift and outdoors.”
This requires riders to undertake Zwift’s well-known Three Sisters Route.
Taylor said: “They are required to do it at effort, so we can see what their capabilities ranges are.
“They are incentivised to do it at effort because if all of a sudden they produce X during the test and they go produce Y during the racing, we are like ‘something’s not adding up here.’
“We also ask them to do the same outdoors, so that we can compare the two efforts and see if there are any anomalies.
“We are getting a full picture of who these athletes are and what an outlier performance looks like versus what’s within their realm of capability.”
Weighing in on camera
Zwift’s efforts to prevent fraud include requiring competitors to film their own weigh-ins.
Taylor said: “It’s required to all be on video. They have to have something like a newspaper, or something to verify the date, a clock such as your phone to verify the time. Obviously, the video gives the context of who it is.”
With athletes generally likely to perform better in racing than in training, how does Zwift determine what is an acceptable range between the two?
Taylor said: “I will leave the full science and data metrics to the Zada team because I am not fully versed in it.
“They keep a tight grasp on that just for the fact that we don’t want people to start out swinging the system.
“There are thresholds to it. What you are able to do outside in a test TT isn’t going to be worlds off what you do in a race.
“Yes, there are people who are able to push that extra bit and are racers by nature, but being able to go outside of your ‘normal’ is taken into account.
“There is that range where we say here’s what is taken as normal and here’s what is taken as an outlier.”
On top of this, competitors must provide power data from their trainer and a power meter plus heart rate data.
Building a picture
“All of those things have that visual passport behind them,” added Taylor.
With the growth of esports events, Taylor believes the prizemoney could one day outstrip conventional live events.
He said: “The prize money is getting there, it’s good. It’s also improving in outdoor events. People like the PTO are stepping up to the plate and shedding more light on that.
“But you have to also look at the video game industry as a whole. There are people that are bringing home some quite significant pay cheques.
“We as an organisation need to provide the racing. We need to ensure it’s fair and that it’s things that people want to watch.
“That will then cause more broadcasters to pick it up, which then brings more sponsors and partners into that space, which then raises the prize money.
“That’s why we take it very seriously how we create fair, honest racing. We know this has a direct influence on these athletes and the pay cheques they bring home to their families.”
An Olympic spot in 2028 may seem a long shot, but Taylor has no doubts over esport’s potential.
He said: “We have a lot of work to do and a lot of work has gone into it already, but we see formats like the Super League Arena Games and UCI Esports world champs and hope it has a place in the Olympic Games at some point.
“We see this as the future and something we are going to continue to invest in and see where that ceiling is and hopefully keep pushing through it because it’s really exciting stuff.”