Virtual racing on Zwift is faced with many challenges, and this isn’t a surprise: it’s a young platform with an unproven business model. At the same time, virtual bike racing opens up new opportunities with its accessibility, reduced injury risk, gamification potential and much more.
Although racing has been a part of Zwift since its early days, we are only now beginning to see it gain real prominence in the cycling world as pros engage, governing bodies endorse, and the user base expands. Now is a prudent time to examine this platform’s challenges and opportunities so we can work together to overcome the obstacles early and capitalize on the strengths.
This is the first in a three-part series exploring Zwift racing’s challenges and opportunities. Today we will focus on spectating Zwift races. What’s working, what isn’t, and how do we fix it?
Challenge: How Do I Watch It?
Even though there are multiple race broadcasts each week, we still have no central schedule of upcoming Zwift race broadcasts.
This is growing pains, the product of most race broadcasting being a grassroots effort with insufficient manpower/funding. And I’m confident this will change as Zwift continues to grow the racing segment.
But for now, the simple truth is that a certain number of viewers never watch the live streams because they don’t know about them. And that’s a pity, because getting the word out is the easy part.
Opportunity: Stream Everywhere
Today’s technology makes streaming high-quality Zwift races affordable and easy. It doesn’t take much in terms of hardware to set up a decent broadcasting rig, and that stream can be broadcast free over YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, and other services. No licensing rights to purchase, no Internet bandwidth to lease.
This means spectators should have access to Zwift race live streams wherever and whenever they want them, at no charge. On my smart TV, my phone, my computer? Yes, please.
The only thing missing here is a central calendar of quality upcoming race streams. List the upcoming races, each with a link to click and watch. And send out email alerts while you’re at it. Who’s going to build it? Or perhaps (better) it could be included in Zwift Companion?
Challenge: Who Are These People?
Admit it: outdoor road races can be boring to watch, especially when you aren’t familiar with the riders. So much of cycling is about the stories of the individual racers, the rivalries, their individual strengths and weaknesses. The story of Mathew Hayman winning Paris-Roubaix after breaking his arm and recovering on Zwift comes to mind…
But this is Zwift. A land of (mostly) unknown amateurs. And until spectators get to know some of the racers, watching a Zwift race will remain a somewhat disconnected, dispassionate affair.
Opportunity: Tell the Community’s Stories
I have no doubt that some of our community’s amateur “indoor specialists” will gain more notoriety than many pro riders as more eyes reach our platform in the coming years. Let’s tell their stories.
If race broadcasters could better connect their viewers to the racers, they would build a much more passionate and dedicated audience. It may not be easy to weave several compelling personal storylines into a 45-60 minute race broadcast, but making an effort to do so will surely pay off.
Other media also provide an opportunity to feature the stories of racers. Interviews here on Zwift Insider, posts about athletes on Zwift’s corporate blog, and good ol’ ZwiftPower stats all provide much-needed windows into the stories behind the avatars.
It’s easy to turn off a race stream when you don’t have a hero in the front group. Let’s make some heroes.
Challenge: Live Spectating
The term “live Zwift race event” may seem like an oxymoron, but it’s actually far from it. I attended CVR World Cup Los Angeles at the VELO Sports Center last March, and it was fun! That said, what made it fun for me was interacting with the racers, cheering them on and even giving some of the less experienced riders advice as they approached certain parts of the course. This is doable when you have 10 racers and 50 spectators, but it doesn’t scale well.
Would I want to sit “in the stands” and watch Zwift racers on stage? Sure, if the stakes were high. But I wouldn’t pay much money or spend time traveling to do so.
Will Zwift racing ever have the pull of the Tour de France, with its claimed 12 million roadside spectators? Of course not… it’s a physical impossibility. Will it ever fill an e-sports arena? Perhaps. But focusing on live spectators is the wrong approach.
Opportunity: Massive Online Audience
Live streaming can bring the Zwift racing experience to a massive, global audience. Anyone with an Internet connection can watch Zwift races, and if the broadcast is compelling enough they will do so.
Zwift must surely understand there is huge marketing potential here as well. We all have cycling friends who could benefit from Zwifting but haven’t given it a try yet. Get those folks to watch a quality Zwift race stream and they may just go out and buy a smart trainer the next day.
So focus on getting Internet viewers, and only worry about live events if they somehow make the Internet viewing significantly more compelling.
Challenge: Lack of Live Action
Let’s face it: nobody wants to watch a Zwift race unless something is added to it. Avatars by themselves are only exciting if you are one of the avatars.
Zwift Community Live’s Nathan Guerra understands this, and he works to bring in other elements including post-race interviews and additional commentators. But we need more. We need to see and hear the real people behind the avatars.
Opportunity: Live Webcams
Racers could stream live video of themselves on the bike so we can see their pain faces and posture. Perhaps we even need to hear their efforts from time to time. (CVR had some good ideas in this vein before they went sideways, jumping ship to build their own racing platform.)
If broadcasters can’t handle pulling up live streams of racers for a picture-in-picture view of the action, perhaps a live streaming site could be created which lets viewers choose from a variety of live webcams while the main broadcast audio and video continue to play.
I’m not sure what the best solution is, but I know there’s one out there.
Challenge: Poor Visuals
At this point, broadcasters don’t have much more to work with beyond just watching other riders from within the Zwift game. Unlike outdoor races where riders position themselves in the draft and hold a wheel, Zwift pelotons are constantly churning, making it very tough to pick out who’s who. The constantly-changing rider list on the right doesn’t help much either.
Is Rider X off the back? Off the front? In this pack? And what pack are we even looking at right now?
Sometimes these answers are obvious… other times they are not. All of this information is available, if you know where to look (*ahem*… ZwiftPower… *ahem*) but Joe Spectator won’t know that.
Opportunity: Metrics to the Max
Here is an opportunity for Zwift to outshine outdoor racing in a big way. We have all the important data on all the riders, throughout the event. Here’s a quick list:
- Average Power
- Distance completed, distance left
- Elevation climbed, elevation still to climb
- Time gaps between riders/groups
- Current gradient
- Current location on map
- Total ride time
- Rider list (including team name)
Spectators need a screen which lets them immediately, intuitively understand what is going on at any given time during the race. They shouldn’t see a message about “watching” a particular rider at the top of the screen… but at all times they should know what group or portion of the race we are currently watching, and how much distance is left.
Display some of those key metrics when it makes sense, and let the broadcasters decide when to show or hide some or all of them. Take a cue from outdoor race broadcasts, but improve on it since we have amazing metrics at our fingertips. (More on this in part two, where we’ll focus on broadcasting Zwift races.)
Challenge: A Weak Finish
Some races end with a simple, “Well, here’s who won. See ya folks!” Sometimes the end result is a bit of a question mark, if a rider’s power numbers seem dodgy. (More on dodgy numbers in part three of this series).
The important thing here is that, at the precise spot where spectators should feel the most excitement, things can just… fizzle.
This isn’t every time, but it happens often enough that it’s an issue. We need a definite winner (or even a full podium) and we need to connect with those winners on a deeper level.
Opportunity: More Metrics, More Connection
What if a race ended, and immediately on screen we saw the winner’s name and final stats?
What if there were other stats, perhaps for the rider with the highest 20-minute power, or advanced numbers like the rider who burned the most matches, or won the sprint competition, or…?
The important thing is to get those results and metrics up quickly, and make them interesting and impressive.
Lastly: get that winner (or the whole podium) on a webcam and talk to them within 5 minutes of the finish. Make that connection!
It’s still early days for Zwift racing, and this is evident when spectating races. Live streams are still hard to find, difficult to follow, and impersonal if you’re not plugged into the Zwift racing community.
Still, there are big opportunities here to reach and engage a massive, global audience. If people will stand on the side of the road for hours just to watch the pro peloton fly by, they’ll certainly tune in to watch a short Zwift race…. but only if they can connect with the real riders and follow the action as it unfolds.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities Zwift racing holds for spectators today. Share below!