The State of Zwift Racing – Part II

In case you missed it, you can read Part I here. In that part I talked about a couple of the most influential events for the Zwift Racing community last year: the KISS Community Leage/KISS Super League and the British eRacing Championships. This post will cover some of the current issues facing the community and the sport, unpacking a number of a smaller events and situations to figure out where we’re at and where we’re headed.

And on that note, let’s get stuck into it!

The Leaderboard – zwiftpower.com

We might as well start with the elephant in the room first and a topic that I carefully avoided addressing in Part I. If you’ve done any events on Zwift, when you finish you’ll see that you’re treated to a little leaderboard that pops up with the finishing order for that event and some other rider stats. Zwift has certainly made that prettier and more functional than the old leaderboard. But that’s all it is. Stats for just that event. How do you know how those results factor into the Zwift Racing scene as a whole?

That’s where zwiftpower.com comes in. This site was first built a few years back by a couple of community members to keep track of events on Zwift, their results, and to present a ranking system based on those results. Even just for seeing what events are coming up, it displays them in a way that is much easier to quickly scan, filter, and process than how Zwift displays them. Add in the fact that it keeps tracks of all of your results and ranks you against other riders and you’ve got yourself a very powerful tool.

zwiftpower_events
The first thing you see when you open up zwiftpower. All the events for the next couple hours are listed in a much more digestible way
zwiftpower_profile
A sample profile (mine). With all these stats, of course Zwifters are going to flock to this site

It wasn’t until the Fall of 2018 that I’d say it really took off though. When they finally sorted through the impacts of GDPR and came back online, it was momentous. Racing for a few months without an overarching ranking or organization system showed just how much the community relied on it to give some structure and order to this otherwise hacked-together sport.

But it was then, when it came back online, that it became clear the dangers of having your ranking system and event manager – the backbone of the Zwift racing system – run by community members unaffiliated with Zwift. At this rebirth, the folks in charge of zwiftpower.com, for unclear reasons, decided to mix up how they were going to calculate rankings. It had previously used the USA Cycling ranking method, but soon they were changing the ranking method every few weeks, trying to work out an alternative solution to a problem that had already been solved. After experimenting for several weeks, they finally moved back to the USAC system, not before everyone was thoroughly confused as to how they actually improve their rank.

This trend of willy-nilly decision making, while it shows they care about the site and trying to improve it, does little to inspire confidence that any feature they do add will be around longer term. It also shows just how unstable this situation is. If the people running zwiftpower get sick of it one day then bam, it’s gone. Zwift has tried to build up and promote this sport all while it leans so heavily on a community-run back-end. So when Zwift makes it clear the direction they want to take the sport, they don’t have all the authority they need to make that decision and force the sport in that direction since the community has spun up it’s own little ecosystem, relying only on the virtual world to continue to exist.

Putting Their Money Where Their Mouth Is

In April of 2019, Zwift closed out their latest funding round (they may be an established company of hundreds of employees, but they’re still raising funding rounds). This round was by far their biggest and most directed yet. They raised $120 million (USD) with the sole purpose of growing and supporting their esports business. Now, I won’t complain that we haven’t seen much benefit or big shifts for all that money – or even just the declared focus – since they could be working on big things behind the scenes. What I will comment on, rather, is how so little anything at all seems to have changed.

Even without the extra money, they made a clear point that esports and virtual racing is something they want to be more involved in. Yet, as far as I or any outsider can tell, the only thing that’s really changed, evolved, or improved over the last year is that there are a lot more people (and a lot more strong people) online now. Roughly the same Zwift-official events are being run (with the exception of the KISS leagues I talked about last time because the community organizers tired of all the work). They’ve tried introducing smaller invite-only races with different race formats which, while amusing to watch, are entirely inaccessible to everyone but the 10-20 riders that get invited. They’ve tried developing race-specific formats of the big multi-stage Tours they run (Tour of London, Tour of Zwift, etc.) but those formats are laughably being ignored because, simply put, they don’t reflect the type of racing people want to do.

The biggest race series right now outside of the Tours are all community run (KALAS, 3R) and broadcasted by the unofficial official community streaming group. The unofficial official streaming group (Zwift Community Live and the famous Zwift commentator, Nathan Guerra) even commentate the official Zwift events and get to use fancy new broadcast tools…Or so it appears. Their “fancy tools” are nothing more than a UI overlay on the stream with someone manually punching in all the data and feeding it to the racers through the in-game chat.

For having made clear the intent that they want to expand the racing scene, it really seems that Zwift is bludgeoning ahead – albeit lightly – with what they think “e-racing” should look like while the community, with it’s tremendous momentum, just keeps on doing what they’re doing.

The Data

That’s not to say though that the situation in the community is peaceful. Having always been a somewhat ad-hoc sport, it has also always had to be self-policing.  When it was smaller and the top tier of racing was made up of a couple hundred people world-wide, this system was entirely sufficient. You’d recognize a lot of people in races, knowing who was strong. For anyone putting out consistently suspect numbers, they would be asked to send data from outdoor rides to the community-run ZADA (Zwift Anti-Doping Agency) to verify their performance. If everything checked out, your zwiftpower profile would be marked with a small “ZADA Approved” icon and you’d be clear to race to your legs’ demise.

But then as the number of riders increased manyfold over the following few years, it became far too much work for volunteers to run ZADA. First it re-branded with a more limited scope. Then, by early 2019, it shut it’s doors and left the community to fend for itself. That brings us to an interesting situation now. Community-driven initiatives included video weigh-ins – where people post a video of themselves in kit using a dummy weight to verify their scale then weighing-in themselves – and dual recordings – where racers would record their races using multiple power sources (a power meter and a reliable trainer, typically). Additionally, for Zwift-official events only, Zwift revived ZADA as Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis to provide one-time verification for race podiums and random sampling.

None of these efforts have helped to give people the sense that their fellow racers are playing by the book. The atmosphere just gets more and more toxic, especially in the lower categories where stronger people opt to sandbag (ride a lower category than what their numbers say they can ride) so that they can take down a win or at least be at the pointy end of the race. Even previous giants of the racing scene have been brought down in the maelstrom of accusations of cheating.

The Race Style

I touched on this earlier with mention of the Tour of London and the Tour of Zwift. From the British eRacing Championships onwards, Zwift has pushed for short, track-like races as their go-to for events to be broadcasted. Their argument for doing so, I believe, is that the regular format of racing – a 30min – 1hr sweet spot effort mixed with maximum power surges up to 7min – wouldn’t hold peoples’ attention, especially if they weren’t familiar with Zwift. On the contrary, the racers’ favourite events seems to be those of the classic style, now even trending to longer than an hour. The majority of people are using races as a good workout, so to schedule your time around a 20min or less event becomes almost a waste of time when your training calls for double that.

The real problem here is that neither side is in the “wrong” or approaching the issue in a misinformed or incorrect way. Zwift is entirely right that an hour long race isn’t going to hold people’s attention unless they’re already immersed in the product, but those aren’t the people they need to attract to grow the sport. But the racers are also right. These shorter, track-like events aren’t as good of a workout as a quality hour long hammerfest and they also aren’t representative of the style of racing that has made the sport what it is today. This difference of opinion is an issue too, because when Zwift tries to make broadcasted and official events open to the community like the Tour of Zwift and Tour of London – where they added a special, shorter “race” time slot – the community voted with their virtual feet and just raced the longer “group ride” instead.

Where does that leave us?

None of these differences are irreconcilable, in my opinion. I’d like to think there are already private discussions being had between Zwift and the community on what do to do about zwiftpower.com, race rankings, and data verification. Finallly, I’m also pretty positive that we’ll see something substantial for the $120 million Zwift raised. The company loves putting out new features to enhance the experience (arguably too much of a focus on the new instead of improving what’s there) and the CEO, Eric Min, has recently become a very vocal proponent of the racing scene. I just hope that they don’t try to fix the situation solely with shiny new things to attract new people instead of fixing what’s broken to maintain the loyal core.

And that about concludes what I have to say for this post! Having now covered some of the major recent events for Zwift as well as the current issues the sport faces, next time I may just weigh in with some ideas of my own for a path forward. In the meantime…

oliver_wave

Cheers and Ride On!

-Evan

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