Commentary: Greater standardization needed for esports racing

‘I think it's odd to use an RGT race to award a Zwift worlds spot,’ said the winner of the UCI esports world cycling championship Pan American qualification race.

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On November 27 and 28, the Pan American qualification race for the 2022 UCI esports cycling world championships was hosted on Zwift, on the Watopia Figure 8 route. The top six places in each of the men’s and women’s races earned automatic qualification for the world championships in late February. Team Twenty-24’s Shayna Powless won the women’s race, and VeloNews columnist Zach Nehr (NeXT pb Enshored) took the win in the men’s event.

Those who did not make the top six have a few additional opportunities to qualify for the world championships. For U.S. racers, this means petitioning to be named to Team USA, based on previous performances. Or, athletes can participate in another race-off, on December 11th, on the RGT platform.

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You read that correctly: Those wanting to race at Zwift worlds will first need to race — and win — on the RGT platform. This is significant because the virtual cycling platforms are substantially different from one another.

“RGT is so much punchier, with the braking, corners, collision avoidance, and drafting algorithms,” Nehr told VeloNews. “I’ve ridden and raced on both RGT and Zwift, and both platforms have their benefits and drawbacks.”

RGT is the platform of choice for the Echelon Racing League series, and for the USA Cycling qualifier for “Zwift worlds.” The game experience is different from Zwift in significant ways, which requires game-specific knowledge.

Nehr’s NeXT pb Enshored teammate Brian Duffy, who finished in second place just fractions of a second behind Nehr in the Pan American qualifier, also noted significant differences between the two virtual cycling environments.

“Although many people think of ecycling as purely driven by power generated, the gamecraft is incredibly important,” Duffy told VeloNews. “It’s an area that I practice every day — I even watch video from races to better perfect the timing, momentum, and physics. Thus, it’s an important element to excel at in order to win races, especially the big ones.”

Stefanie Sydlik, who races for Canyon eSports, just missed qualifying for “Zwift Worlds” through the Pan American qualification race by a few fractions of a second. She will either need to petition for a berth on Team USA, or race the qualification race on RGT if she wants to race at “Zwift Worlds.” She has several seasons of racing on both platforms and offers a perspective gained through experience.

“The Zwift algorithm approximates aerodynamics with weight and height,” Sydlik told VeloNews. “RGT factors in breaking into corners, and positioning, but no drag scaled by height or weight.”

Fairness and the future of esports

During the 202o “Zwift worlds,” all competitors raced on identical hardware provided by Tacx/Garmin. This ensured fairness for all racers, as the game predictably interacted with the single model of smart trainer used by all competitors. It was a significant measure to ensure fairness and limit technological doping or other means of cheating.

And, Zwift has done a lot of work to improve the in-game experience, with updates to the drafting algorithm and tweaks to how virtual equipment behaves in-game. RGT has also made improvements to its product but still has not experienced the mass adoption that Zwift has, so many racers do not have significant experience to know the nuanced differences in racing across both platforms. This may be a disadvantage for some riders, and could mean that strong and skilled racers could be left on the sidelines, instead of representing the United States on an international stage.

“It would be similar to using a cyclocross race to select for a worlds mountain bike team,” said Katheryn Curi of Team I Race Like A Girl. At the Pan Am qualifiers, Curi managed to barely squeak into the final qualification spot just ahead of Sydlik, and will thus not have to race at the U.S. qualification race. She also observed that fairness is paramount if cycling esports are to succeed.

“Zwift has implemented backend [controls] regarding rider verification through Zwift Power and ZADA [Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis Group, –ed],” Curi said. “I am not sure RGT has that established yet. I believe, similar to IRL racing, holding all riders to the same level of standard with regards to honest sport is fundamental to fair play.”

Also read: Power analysis: How I won the UCI esports world cycling championship Americas qualifier

Sydlik, with several seasons of racing in both Zwift and RGT, agreed with Curi. She noted the controls to discourage and catch cheating are not equal across platforms. While Zwift and RGT both require video verification of height and weight, RGT does not require a secondary external power measurement as Zwift does.

“RGT is pretty soft on verifications, too,” Sydlik said. “They don’t require a dual record, or at least I haven’t yet heard that they do.”

The most recent UCI esports world cycling championships took place in December 2020, in Zwift.

Horses for courses

Racers also were quick to point out that not only is game platform standardization needed, but routes used for team selection should be standardized, and be meaningful. For example, if a championship event is to be hosted on a hilly route, the qualification races prior to it should also be on similar routes. The UCI esports world cycling championships will have significant climbing, but qualification races for Americans are on flat courses. In both Zwift and RGT, this favors those who can produce higher raw power, measured by greater watts produced.

“In a perfect world, I would have loved to see the Zwift worlds qualifiers take place on Zwift — and on the Zwift World’s course which is the Knickerbocker route,” Nehr said. “But I also think that it was odd that Zwift used a completely different course for their qualifiers than the one they’ll use for the Zwift esports world championships.”

“The world championships course will finish on a three-minute climb with gradients over 15 percent, so it’s safe to say that there won’t be any crit riders or sprinters making it to the finish. Why you would hold a qualifier race on a sprinter-friendly course is a bit baffling to me.”

Sydlik agreed. “It’s a bit weird to have all of the qualification events be on flatter sprinter courses (both on Zwift and RGT) for the UCI worlds event on a hilly course.”

VeloNews reached out to a former number-one world-ranked Zwift rider, Holden Comeau, for his thoughts about using different gaming platforms and different courses for qualification than for championship races. Comeau declined to comment.

“Given that the game craft is very different across platforms, I don’t follow the logic for hosting the qualifier on another platform — it discounts the Zwift-specific gameplay skills that’ll be useful for the championships,” Duffy said. And his teammate Nehr agreed.

“I think it’s odd to use an RGT race to award a Zwift worlds spot,” Nehr said.

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