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It’s been two years now of huge increases in the number of people riding inside. Two years, too, of growth in e-racing, and two years for the mega virtual platform, Zwift, to refine its anti-cheating protocols—which it’s been doing in bits and pieces, and sometimes in leaps.
Last week, Zwift found itself embroiled in a “weight doping” scandal after an avid user pointed out a lesser known way for athletes to cheat—by changing their weight or height once they were in the middle of a race. Zwift initially issued a “shadow ban” against the athlete and was criticized for, in essence, shooting the messenger. The company later walked back from that and announced a fix to the hack. You can no longer change your weight while in the middle of an event; doing so will now result in a generic error message.
Why does this matter?
Zwift and nearly all virtual cycling platforms work on an algorithm that takes weight, height, and power into account for each ride. While power is measured by a smart trainer and/or power meter, weight and height are up the athlete to input into the system.
There are then a few obvious ways to cheat—or unintentionally cheat, as it were—by causing any of those inputs to be incorrect. Our sister publication, CyclingTips, outlined a number of these ways and what’s being done to address them, but in essence they amount to:
- deliberately or accidentally inputting an incorrect weight or height
- hacking your smart trainer or power meter to jack up the readings
- inadvertently (or deliberately) miscalibrating the power meter or smart trainer to give incorrect readings
- doing something crazy like riding an ebike or hacking the hardware itself
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For the average middle-of-the-pack athlete, the question is: should we care? If the goal of any platform is simply to get people riding bikes and playing the game, then cracking down on every discrepancy or requiring every single one of the 30,000+ athletes on Zwift at any given time to record weigh-in videos doesn’t make sense. However, as a survey of Zwift users showed, if athletes feel cheating is too common in their e-races, then they’re less likely to come back or to keep at it. (We wrote about this at length when Ironman was considering handing out world championship spots in their Ironman VR races.)
This is why Zwift and most virtual platforms have divided their protocols into two categories: what works for the general public and community races, and what they have to do for elite, invite-only races.
For the community, it basically comes down to relying on self-policing and using machine learning to pick out anomalies in the data. There are software fixes, like the one rolled out last week to eliminate the ability to change your weight while in the middle of a race. But primarily it’s a system of using athletes’ data to note when things stand out—and if something does, then the team dives deep into your history, data, and asks for back-up references. To this end, there are a couple of things Zwift is testing in its FutureWorks program (which means it only tests these things in certain races where it’s designated). These include Autocat, a feature that takes your past race history and places you in the category that best fits that past performance, and Anti-Sandbagging, a feature that uses your five-minute power in a race to determine if you’re racing in the correct category and will throttle you down if you’re not.
CEO Eric Min also announced last week, during the weight doping saga, that Zwift would be rolling out a “bug bounty” program, which will reward users for finding and pointing out bugs or holes that can be exploited. More details are to come on that.
For elite races, on the other hand, there is a detailed esports rulebook created by Zwift that has been refined many times over. Depending on the level of competition at stake, this includes things like:
- specific instructions on calibration
- specific instructions on video verification of weigh-in
- verification of connections and software
- multiple sources of data that can back-up and confirm in-game play
Changes over the last two years have included adjusting when you must submit your weigh-in video (and now being required to also record in the video an internet search for the time and day), when you must submit pre-race test data, and not being allowed to change equipment within a certain number of days before an event.
While there have been triathletes issued bans, including four-time Israman champion Antonina Reznikov, a Zwift spokesperson said there are currently just five bans in effect and they’re all six-month bans.
Next month, the first-ever Triathlon Esports World Championship will get under way. There will be a real World Triathlon title on the line and World Triathlon points—not to mention real money. That means the set of rules followed will be the strictest. But, since the specific Super League Arena Games format is a hybrid virtual and in-person stadium event, calibration and weigh-ins will be done in-person and athletes won’t have to rely on videos or worry about trainer malfunctions.
In some ways, ironically, being in-person makes virtual regulation much easier.
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