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Just ahead of the UCI esports world championship on its platform, Zwift banned an avid user from full participation in its virtual cycling platform for publicly detailing a way to cheat during Zwift racing by changing a rider’s weight.
After the situation escalated, Zwift CEO Eric Min stepped in, apologized to the user, and rescinded the ban. Here’s what happened.
The game of Zwift works on an algorithm that takes three things into account for each rider: their height, their weight, and their power. While power fluctuates throughout a virtual race and is measured in real-time by a smart trainer and/or a power meter or meters, a rider’s height and weight obviously should not change during an event.
“Weight doping” means manually entering a dishonestly low rider weight into the game. Fans of pro cycling know that in real life, a high power-to-weight ratio is a huge determinant in the outcome of races that go uphill. In the Zwift game, this watts-per-kilogram measurement is a fundamental means of competition for racing when the virtual road tilts upward. (There is also calculated drafting in Zwift, but as with outside, its impact diminishes the steeper the road gets.)
Luciano Pollastri is an avid Zwift user and a contributor to Zwift Insider, a site dedicated to all things Zwift. Pollastri published a WordPress post (not on Zwift Insider), explaining how to change a rider’s weight during a race. Pollastri did so, he said, to get Zwift to change their system so as to prevent people from cheating.
Zwift responded by asking Pollastri to take down his post, and giving him a 30-day “shadow ban,” which means he can ride in the game but his avatar isn’t visible to others and his finishes in events are not included in the results.
Zwift also removed posts from their own forum where users discussed this hack. In addressing this instance and others, Zwift maintains that they don’t want to publicize how people can cheat.
Pollastri has since taken down his WordPress post, and Min published this response on a Zwift forum.
“This situation could have been better handled by both parties. The performance-increasing exploit was until now, relatively unknown both within Zwift and outside, but this is no excuse to not have addressed it. The exploit is detectable, and we have the ability to look back and identify those to have used it. That said, our priority is not to look back, but to look forward, and fix this as a matter of priority in one of the upcoming game releases.
For this reason, we have taken the decision to lift the 30-day shadow ban issued to Luciano. For clarity, a shadowban does not prevent a Zwifter from using Zwift, they simply do not show to others.
Neither party had ill intent and I can only apologize to all involved, but in particular to Luciano himself. We have an obligation to the community to address exploits on the platform and will fix this particular exploit as a matter of priority.
It is important for us to uphold our terms of service as they exist to protect the enjoyment of the majority of Zwifters. Rather than share information on how to exploit a performance bug, we would always encourage members of the community to come forward to Zwift with performance exploits they find. The process on how to bring such issues to the attention of Zwift hasn’t always been clear, so in order to improve this, we plan to introduce a bug bounty program that will not only make it easier for Zwifters to highlight issues but will also reward them for doing so. We will need time to develop this program but will share information in due course.”
For his part, Pollastri said the experience was frustrating. Pollastri is not competing in Zwift worlds, but he does regularly race on the platform.
“The last three days were very disappointing as a Zwifter,” he told VeloNews. “Now that I am reinstated and Eric Min apologized I feel I can come back. I love Zwift Community.”
Whether or not he will continue to race in Zwift, Pollastri said, “depends exclusively on Zwift’s real commitment for fair racing and solving all the bugs allowing cheats.”
“It has nothing to do with performance, it’s just that it is not fun to play with cheaters,” he said. “I would say the same playing monopoly. I don’t like to play with cheaters.”
Zwift PR director Chris Snook said the weight-doping “exploit” will be addressed in an upcoming game update. Further, Snook said, Zwift is planning to launch a “bug bounty system that will encourage and reward Zwifter for discovering performance exploits and helping Zwift resolve them. This program will need work and we will update once this rolls out.”
Snook said Zwift can track if users use this hack. “We will obviously be monitoring riders during the worlds later today and have the ability to look back at past rides to uncover its use,” Snook said. “As Eric says in his post, we aren’t planning to look back but look forward.”