An esport that actually feels like a sport

I went to Six Day London last night, at the Velo Park in Stratford.

It was loud, it was frenetic, it was fast and a lot of the time I had no real idea what was going on, but as an overall experience (for someone who isn’t an avid cycling fan) it was great.

It’s a good example of a sport trying to engage a bigger audience by packaging it up in a new, accessible and entertaining way, while still retaining the integrity of the sport at the heart of it (I wrote about this a few weeks ago).

One of the really interesting things about it was the integration of esports into the event, in the form of a Zwift race featuring eight professional female riders. In case you don’t know Zwift, it’s a digital platform that allows cyclists to ride around and compete in a virtual world.

The technology has become so well integrated into the world of cycling that the UCI recently announced an official Zwift-based esports World Championships for 2020.

Nothing especially revolutionary about that – esports tournaments have been around for a few years now featuring everything from FIFA to Fortnite, attracting massive audiences and with the top players earning huge amounts of cash. But so far this has all existed, at best, in parallel with “proper sport”. Most of the biggest esports have nothing to do with actual sport and the skills needed to play FIFA don’t exactly correlate with what it takes to excel at football in the real world.

The difference with Zwift is that this feels like the first esport that is actually a sport in any meaningful way (vs being competitive video gaming). To be at the top of this game, you have to actually get on a bike and ride, and put in the same level of training as the top pros. Given that a lot of top pro cyclists already use Zwift for indoor training, it’ll be fascinating to see how many of them have a go at the esports championships, and to see them taking on the amateurs.

This feels like the first genuine possibility of bringing the worlds of traditional and digital/virtual sport together, in a way that makes sense. Zwift are aiming for esports cycling to be included in the 2024 Olympics and, with the IOC desperate to find ways to engage a younger audience, it might just happen. If it does, I’d expect more to follow.

Most sports are desperate to reach the Gen Z audience and they see esports (and technology in general) as the way to do it, but they need to retain the physical dimension to their sport, so it doesn’t become just a video game. Expect to see more use of platforms like Zwift and more blurring of the lines between what takes place in the real and the virtual worlds.

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