Competitors challenge Zwift's dominance in virtual cycling as UCI accepts bids for future Esports World Championships

What does the UCI's call for bids to host the Esports World Championship reveal about the future of cycling esports?

Team USA at the 2023 UCI Esports World Championships
(Image credit: TLBVelo)

Zwift has been the category leader in virtual cycling for some time, but competition is on the rise with platforms such as Wahoo-RGT, MyWhoosh, Rouvy and other commercial entities. This has led the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) to welcome bids for hosting the 2024, 2025 and 2026 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. The UCI is the world cycling governing body overseeing international competitive cycling events and the sole owner of the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships.

The first Esports World Championships was held in 2020; later editions occurred in 2022 and 2023. The marquee event on the Cycling Esports calendar, the world championship, is a proving ground for the sport's elite competitors and technological innovation.

Zwift has hosted all editions thus far, but that could change in future years. 

"Zwift is the leading cycling esports platform and is proud to provide a competitive venue in our immersive virtual worlds for Zwifters interested in racing, whether they're challenging themselves in community racing or vying for a World Championship berth,” said Zwift representative Andrew Bernstein. 

“We're not able to comment on the ongoing tender process, however, we remain proud of our longstanding and ongoing collaboration with the UCI. Our engagement with the UCI has led to the creation of the new discipline of Cycling Esports; three UCI Esports World Championship events; the Virtual Tour de France, which brought gender parity to the Tour de France for the first time; and next month's Olympic Esports Series."

Many onlookers and casual cycling esports enthusiasts likely considered it a foregone conclusion that Zwift would continue hosting the world championship in the coming years but, apparently, not in the eyes of the UCI. 

In their call for bids, the organization requires the platform to "be a financially robust organization which can demonstrate sufficient resources to honor the organization of the 2024, 2025 and 2026 editions of the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships pursuant to the terms and conditions laid down in the Organisation Agreement and during the Term."

A Zwift software competitor, MyWhoosh, fresh off its 2023 MyWhoosh Championship, appears to fulfill those terms. The recent series offered the largest prize pot in cycling esports' short history, totaling one million dollars. The groundbreaking payout turned the heads of many in the esports cycling world, who speculate that the intent of the timing was for maximum impact and the biggest splash.

If money was the only factor, it might put MyWhoosh in the lead. While also excluding the bid of the popular platform RGT, whose ties to Wahoo's reported financial woes make a three-year commitment uncertain. 

Virtual platform Rouvy also reportedly made a strong proposal, according to a source close to the situation. Financials aside, the UCI is also looking for platform stability, performance verification reliability and transparency, and organizational experience. 

Technical glitches on the platform side plagued the million-dollar MyWhoosh Championship. The platform's race team restarted the first stage of the men's race after a catastrophic crash. Multiple riders fell victim to dropouts and other technical issues that put them out of the money. In addition, the MyWhoosh ruleset doesn't have a +/- 1% trainer accuracy rule, the standard for consideration. The platform withdrew its tender proposal in 2023 for fear of irreparable harm to the brand.

Wahoo-RGT hosted the U.S. National Championship in February while Rouvy has hosted international-level competitions. Neither have unaddressed links to platform instability issues or suspected performance verification problems. That said, no platform has the experience or track record of Zwift—the bidding process is a mere formality.

After reading the special clause added to this year's tender that opens the door for other commercial entities, think again. 

"In case the Bidder is not a cycling esports platform or that none of the parties of the same combined bid has the quality of a cycling esports platform, the Bidder(s) must have obtained and be able to demonstrate a sufficient level of commitment from a cycling esports platform for the Term. The assessment of the quality of this commitment shall be left to the sovereign appreciation of the UCI.

Finally, in the event that the Bid includes the hardware part, the bidder must undertake to comply with the requirements specified in the UCI regulations concerning the hardware allowed at such events, requirements which may evolve during the Term."

The chance to put your name on a world championship of any cycling discipline has appeal to more than only the virtual platforms. Imagine the likes of the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) placing the Tour de France alongside a world championship. The prospect of a hybrid bid is not far-fetched when you look back to 2020 and the Virtual Tour de France.

The six-stage cooperation featured many top tour riders and teams battling for iconic leader’s jerseys on France and Paris courses Zwift rolled out for the event. The broadcast spanned the same networks where you found the actual tour and, by most accounts, was a success.

However, one overriding factor may trump all other eligibility and assessment criteria, and the UCI will be biding its time. Sources inform Cycling Weekly that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is ready to make its decision on whether an Olympic medal will be on offer for the virtual cycling sport in 2028.

The chances are better than they have ever been, according to Zwift CEO Eric Min during a recent recording of the Terra podcast. 

"It’s been a ten-year journey for us. We’ve had this vision for many years now. We’re going to make it into the Olympics. We’re going to create a new discipline, new events for the Olympics that marries digital with real athlete performance. It’s a genuine athletic endeavor. It’s a departure from traditional gaming. 

The IOC sees that it checks the box of OK, these are real athletes, real physical efforts, but gaming is involved. They can get that. It’s harder for them to consider a shooting game. I feel pretty good about where the sports are headed and that Zwift will play a role in hybrid sporting disciplines."

In 2021 the IOC unanimously approved an agenda encouraging the development of virtual sports and further engagement with video gaming communities. 

When announcing the Olympic Esports Series 2023, IOC president Thomas Bach stated: "Our approach to e-sports is with a priority to virtual sports, meaning reality sports, where there is physical activity, [like] cycling, rowing, in the meantime, you have even Taekwondo in the e-form, and a number of other sports."

Bach continued: "This is where we are closest to because the physical activity of these athletes is on the same level as athletes in traditional sports. Whether you're doing a leg of the Tour de France on your bicycle at home, or you do the real leg, the physical activity is the same and the challenges."

Zwift and the UCI will host cycling events for the Olympic Esports Series in 2023, organized by the IOC. Sixteen elite esports cyclists (eight men, eight women) will compete in the live final in Singapore June 22-25, 2023. The series will feature Zwift cycling esports alongside virtual archery, baseball, chess, dance, motorsports, taekwondo, tennis and sailing. 

If cycling esports becomes an Olympic medal sport in 2028, the virtual platform that gets the nod will hold all the cards. If and when the landmark decision comes down, it will send a shockwave across the landscape, with repercussions felt in every corner of athletes' basements throughout the cycling esports world. And the offices of the most powerful cycling influencers. It's an exciting time for cycling esports.

Wahoo-RGT declined to  comment when asked, and MyWhoosh, Rouvy and ASO didn’t respond to our inquiries.

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