By Josh Peacock, Events & Partnerships Manager at Cycling Canada

I’m not that old, but when I started riding my bike “esports” was not a widely recognized term, and my own experience in video games was more-or-less limited to Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros and winning paper tickets at the local arcade. For many, video games as we now know them weren’t even invented by the time they sat on their first banana seat (you know who you are!). To say exactly when it all started is up for debate, but there’s no question that this is an industry on the rise. According to a recent Reuters article, worldwide esports industry revenues are expected to top $159 billion by the end of 2020 with projections to surpass $200 billion by 2023. It is projected that more than 2.7 billion gamers will have participated in esports by the end of 2020. Within those staggering numbers, virtual cycling has carved out a pretty substantial piece of the pie. Pre-pandemic numbers for the Zwift platform alone showed 1.6 million active users with over 600 million virtual miles logged, boasting a recent valuation of north of $1 billion.

So what is virtual cycling and why has it developed such a following? Virtual cycling, while still falling under the wider esports banner, stands apart from most other esports in that you actually “play” by virtue of physical exertion. To actively participate in a virtual cycling event, be it a ride, race or workout, you must turn the pedals on your bike. Virtual platforms such as Zwift, RGT, Fulgaz and Peloton have “virtualized” the long-standing activity of stationary cycling by developing sophisticated products that connect consumers to workout plans, virtual worlds, and a global community – all from the comfort of home. The result is a user experience with exciting new challenges and opportunities to stay connected. Amidst a worldwide pandemic, virtual cycling has allowed us to ride and compete with thousands of fellow cyclists and travel to vast virtual worlds without fear of breaking physical distancing protocol or even leaving our living rooms for that matter. Although virtual cycling communities have existed for a number of years, this discipline of cycling is certainly still “new” relative to the sport itself and we’re continuing to learn about its vast potential. Over the past year, I’ve had a chance to dive head-first into the virtual cycling world and familiarize myself with the various platforms and communities that have developed within them. To say I’ve learned a lot is an understatement, but here are some of the key takeaways.

Virtual Cycling is a true community builder

When I first started riding and dabbling in racing, perhaps the biggest bummer every year was when the snow really started to come down and the weather got just cold enough that riding outside was literally painful. Most of the time, that meant putting the bike away and saying so-long to my riding buddies until the spring. Since then, a lot has changed. Alongside exciting industry developments such as the fatbike to better enable year-round riding outdoors, people also began “warming up” to the idea of riding indoors sparked by advancements in smart trainers and virtual cycling platforms. Local races, clubs and meetups began popping up on platforms such as Zwift, and with the advent of apps like Discord you could actually heckle your friends in real-time voice chat. All of a sudden, you could plan group rides with all of your summertime riding buddies just as often, if not more often, than you did in the outdoor season. Not only that, you had the opportunity to connect with other like-minded riders from anywhere else in the world. Since my own foray into virtual cycling, I’ve developed friendships with riders from across the globe stemming from a virtual finish line sprint or ride-along, cemented by regular “ride ons” to keep the stoke level high. The community-building aspect of virtual cycling platforms, from my perspective, is one of the most important value-ads of the whole thing. Virtual platforms have allowed us to stay in touch and continue to challenge each other in a whole new connected world, easing the traditional pain of indoor stationary riding. With the right equipment, a stable internet connection, and a subscription to the platform(s) of choice, users can connect to a likeminded community built around a similar objective of improving health and fitness while maintaining some level of fun.

Esports can effectively compliment “traditional sport”

Quite often I come across conversation threads that criticize esports as promoting a more sedentary lifestyle, encouraging laziness and distracting people from the importance of physical activity. In some cases, there can be merit to these arguments, but we need to look at the bigger picture. Esports has great potential to compliment traditional sport, and many sport organizations are finding unique ways to integrate it into their programming.

Since the meteoric rise of the esports industry worldwide, I’ve seen many traditional sport organizations use esports as a way to engage with, and even build, their communities. One great example is Canada Basketball’s recent Hoops at Home initiative which connected fans and esports consumers to star athletes such as Chris Boucher and Aaliyah Edwards in the name of raising funds for their charity foundation. It is also not uncommon to see traditional sports leagues use esports as a way to keep the community connected during the offseason by virtue of in-house esports leagues, events and tournaments. One pre-pandemic study showed that 4.4 million Canadians have followed esports in the past year, with 57% of Gen Z, 43% of millennials and 31% of Gen X taking in the action. Our younger demographic is actively consuming esports, and traditional sport administrators should be looking closely at ways to seize this opportunity for increased engagement and overall relevance. Esports initiatives such as those mentioned above have provided traditional sports organizations an expanded audience to interact with, offering new opportunities to promote their wider initiatives, perhaps even leading to increased participation “on the field” as a result.

On the virtual cycling side, if you’ve ever participated in an event and had to clean up the resulting pool of sweat off the floor, you’ll know just as well as me that the word sedentary has no business being associated. Not only does this new realm of cycling complement existing riders’ training when it comes time to put the rubber side down outside, it has encouraged a whole new group of people to take up the sport. It is quite reasonable to assume that the same person who purchased a Peloton bike as a means of getting winter exercise or saving money on a gym membership may very well be interested in buying a traditional bike and riding outside as a result. I’ve seen it happen first-hand and if anything we should be prepared to see more of it.

An All-New Equalizer

From a national cycling federation perspective, one thing that has become very clear is the equalizing potential that virtual cycling possesses. Over the years, North American athletes competing at the highest level of cycling have grown accustomed to making the annual pilgrimage across the pond in an effort to gain access to the highest level of training and competition. Although these efforts may absolutely translate to stronger performances in the virtual world, we are seeing that this is no longer necessarily the pre-requisite. Virtual cycling has a high-performance dynamic all unto itself, and as opportunity would have it, it’s not necessarily limited geographically by access to high level face-to-face competition. The result is a more diverse playing field when it comes to top level virtual racing events such as the Virtual Tour de France and the upcoming inaugural UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. We have seen, and will continue to see, world-class performances from athletes not associated to traditional top-level teams, not stemming from traditionally strong “cycling nations” and sometimes not even stemming from a background in cycling itself. Virtual cycling specialists are beginning to develop names for themselves in their own right, and they’re not always the traditional names in cycling we’d expect. From an event hosting perspective, virtual cycling has significantly reduced the capacity required to host large-scale events with elements such as local officiating capacity, access to road closures, financial support, and even local climate out of the equation. With the right equipment, some marketing know-how and a sound knowledge of the platform/community of choice, an organizer from anywhere in the world can host a competitive virtual cycling event.

At the heart of virtual cycling lies the essence of indoor cycling’s humble beginnings – a means of building fitness from the comfort of home. As this exciting new discipline continues to develop, virtual cycling is quickly building an identity of its own that extends well beyond the circumstances that attracted many to indoor cycling in the first place. In a relatively-speaking short timeline, virtual cycling has progressed to the point of becoming a distinctly recognizable discipline of cycling, not unlike road, mountain bike or BMX. As we continue to weather the COVID-19 storm, virtual cycling has been an invaluable tool in keeping our community connected and allowing us to ride and compete against one another without the need to travel or be in close physical contact. With that said, to think that the continued popularity of virtual cycling or esports as a whole is conditional upon a worldwide pandemic would be an incredibly short-sighted assumption. Virtual cycling existed well before the pandemic and will continue to exist well beyond it, albeit with a fresh boost of participants. We are seeing the industry develop specialized gear, federations nominate national teams, and average joes and janes across the world take up cycling from the comfort of their homes. We are also being presented with brand new challenges such as technological doping – a term that wasn’t anywhere near federation radars only a few years ago. Alas, with growth inevitably comes challenge, and I remain confident that the cycling world will rise to the occasion and embrace an exciting new way of participating in our favourite pastime. Perhaps the most exciting outcome is that virtual cycling has done incredible things to attract new people to the wider cycling community as a whole. The end result: more people on bikes – an outcome we can all get excited about.