In agreeing to sanction the first esports championship, UCI — the world’s governing body for cycling — acknowledged it needs to ‘remain relevant to all audiences.’
Calling it, “a major milestone in the history of cycling,” virtual cycling platform Zwift and the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) this week announced the world’s first professional esports championship. The UCI Cycling Esports World Championships will take place sometime in 2020.
The decision marks a potentially monumental shift for professional cyclists. And it’s a move UCI officials see as key to the sport’s longevity.
“We have been looking at the emergence of esports for some time with Zwift,” UCI President David Lappartient said in a statement.
“As the governing body for the sport, we need to remain open to technical innovations and change, and to remain relevant to all audiences [and] together we have an opportunity to support a fitter youth, through the creation of a new sustainable sport.”
UCI Cycling Esports World Championships
Zwift first rolled out to riders of all abilities worldwide in 2015. With a monthly subscription, riders can download the Zwift app to their iOS device, computer, or Apple TV. The app then links to a rider’s indoor stationary bike via simple speed sensor, power meter, or high-end smart trainer.
The result is an immersive virtual world where riders can join group rides, compete in races, or train solo. Not only will Zwift respond to the rider’s power in their digital performance, but depending on the user’s setup, Zwift can also create resistance for hill climbs or emulate the feel of a slipstream.
Because of Zwift’s quick adoption and massive popularity — it hosts 550,000 accounts — it launched its first competitive league, the KISS Super League, with professional teams this year. Rhys Howell, manager for one of the league’s inaugural teams, Canyon ZCC, said joining the esports movement was a “no-brainer.”
“The low barrier to entry was one of the most compelling reasons why we decided to form the first professional cycling esports team with Canyon ZCC,” Howell said. “Racing on Zwift is still in its infancy, but compared to the cost of running a traditional cycling team, starting Canyon ZCC was a no-brainer of an opportunity.”
Zwift Promises Gender Parity in UCI Competition
Perhaps most encouraging from this week’s announcement was Zwift CEO Craig Edmondson’s proclamation that its esports championships would provide a totally equal playing field between men and women. That’s something cycling as a professional sport has historically fallen woefully short of.
“The beauty of creating a new cycling discipline is that we have a blank slate and no limitations,” Edmondson said. “Parity is incredibly important to us at Zwift, and together with the UCI we will be working to create equal competition for both men and women. This means the same number of races, the same coverage for races, and of course, equal prize money.”
“We will set the standard for fair play and equality,” he added.
That’s a big promise. Hopefully, by embracing the esports and Edmondson’s vision, the UCI might bring similar parity to traditional cycling competition as well. UCI and Zwift said they will release details for the 2020 World Championships, including a new rulebook, in coming months.