Why you should care
Because the lines between real and virtual sports are blurring.
What could be more exciting than watching a line of cyclists spinning madly on stationary bikes, sweating profusely, faces grimacing, eyes transfixed on computer screens positioned before them?
Almost anything, right?
Ah, but there’s more to this scene. The cyclists are inside the National Velodrome in Paris, and these aren’t exercise bikes. The 10 extremely fit cyclists are decked out in full racing kit, pedaling svelte racing bikes mounted on indoor trainers that impart varying levels of resistance to the riders’ effort. Those computer screens are tuned in to a virtual cycling platform, and that’s where the action is. In the virtual world, each rider’s avatar is pedaling through a landscape punctuated with alpine peaks, tunnels, dark forests and lava-spewing volcanoes. The avatars duke it out as riders would in a real race — at times in a tight pack, at times responding to heroic breakaway attacks. A steep climb on screen corresponds to an uptick in resistance on the bike. The race may be virtual, but the pain is real. And it actually is exciting to watch.
You see suffering and you see elation. People connect with that.
Frank Garcia, CEO, Cycligent
Cycligent CVR World Cup is one among emerging sporting events trying to marry the popularity of esports with the grit and determination of actual athletes to offer digital sporting fans something they’ve never had before. The formats vary. Unlike the Paris race that involved cyclists on stationary bikes, Tough Mudder, the cultish obstacle-race series, has athletes struggling through real obstacles such as a field of dangling wires delivering a 10,000-watt electric shock, a 16-foot wall to rope-climb and a mud pit where they need to wriggle under barbed wire. But in both cases, real athletes are tested before an audience that’s almost entirely digital. Only 200 or so spectators attended the Paris race in vivo, but some 28,000 viewers watched online. The 2017 World’s Toughest Mudder sufferfest drew 1.1 million viewers through livestreaming on Facebook, though very few were at the actual event. And now, the International Olympic Committee has indicated interest in the virtual sporting world, with plans to introduce an esports tournament during the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.
“Doesn’t physical esports make more sense?” asks Cycligent CEO Frank Garcia, adding that in CVR, “you see suffering and you see elation. People connect with that.”
These new efforts come at a time when esports have moved from fad to fixture in the sporting entertainment industry. Top-of-the-heap esports like Dota 2 or League of Legends, though video games, attract thousands of live spectators and millions of streaming viewers. The 2017 Dota 2 final drew a peak viewership of nearly 11 million online viewers — and filled Seattle’s KeyArena with live spectators. The five-member winning team took home $10.8 million out of a $24.7 million prize pool.
The volume of spectators for CVR or even Tough Mudder races is paltry in comparison, but Garcia is confident of garnering more viewers. Cycligent CVR World Cup utilizes a popular virtual cycling training platform called Zwift. Garcia thinks that his fan base will burgeon beyond the limited universe of Zwift subscribers (about 300,000). “I think there will be tremendous numbers of people watching who will never get on Zwift,” says Garcia. “Most football fans don’t play football at all, let alone tackle.”
But that could cut both ways, suggests London-based esports journalist James Archer. A key reason behind the success of esports like Dota and League of Legends, Archer argues, is that “their fan base is comprised of people who play the game themselves and are generally more engaged because of it.” That’s not quite the case in events that combine physical sport with virtual platforms — Cycligent, for instance, says Archer, “does seem to have a very enthusiastic core of players behind it, but it’s still a much smaller pool from which to draw spectators.”
Still, online spectatorship has grown for Tough Mudder and CVR, and an adoption of esports by the Olympics could prove transformative for these initiatives that rely on true sporting excellence. The Paris race in October was CVR’s third, and virtual spectators have doubled with each event. The next event, CVR World Cup Major, is already scheduled for March 24–25 at the StubHub Velo Center in Los Angeles. And the prize money isn’t insignificant. The Paris athletes competed for a $45,500 total purse, with equal shares going to the men’s and women’s race winners. Victors Ian Bibby and Rachael Elliott each took home about what an 11th-place rider in the Tour de France would. And about 10 percent of the prize money was crowdfunded.
That growing interest appears less surprising after watching the strangely compelling CVR races online. Split screens show the grimacing game faces of stationary cyclists, side by side with their avatars racing through fantasy landscapes, while announcers analyze and amp up the drama of each race. Adding to the fun, viewers (and racers themselves) can see the athletes’ heart rate and power output. For sterling efforts, fans watching live can toss virtual feathers and top up the prize money.
Racers love it. Beth York, who placed seventh in Paris, calls the race “an amazing experience.” Accustomed to “mashing out watts in my basement,” York was a bit nervous. “What if I’m not the rider I think I am?” she recalled wondering. Eventually, she found the race “confidence-building, because I was able replicate my basement numbers on a world stage.”
Some athletes — like Scottie Weiss, a veteran professional bike racer who finished second in Paris — argue that CVR racing might be even purer than real-life racing in terms of strategy and athletic effort. York also applauds the crowdfunded aspect of the gender-neutral prize money. “It’s a whole new model that offers another level of engagement.”