Is It Possible To Regulate Virtual Racing?

As virtual racing grows, so do questions over fairness and consistency.

Photo: Zwift

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The short answer is: yes and no.

Yes, you can regulate virtual racing a certain amount to help ensure fairness and limit cheating, especially in smaller elite events. You can require weigh-ins and calibrations that comply with very specific tech specifications. You can have multiple sources of data to back-up and corroborate the original data. You can even physically watch all the people competing in one place—if the event is small and elite enough.

But, no, on a mass level, it’s nearly impossible to confirm that every single one of thousands of athletes has the right software and connections, that their trainer is correctly calibrated, that what power it says they’re putting out corresponds with the power it says someone else is putting out. Once you get to thousands of participants, it becomes infinitely harder to watch every single one of them, to spot the anomalies and troubleshoot the tech issues.

This is what Zwift has been dealing with for years. “It doesn’t play out at scale,” said Greg Fischer, a press spokesperson for Zwift. This is what they’re trying to come up with some new solutions for.

And now it’s what Ironman finds itself up against with freshly announced plans to hand out 70.3 World Championship slots via its virtual race series (VR). How do you make sure it’s fair and the right people win?

The Issues With Virtual Cheating

There are a few challenges that consistently come with up with virtual racing. There are the outright cheaters—people who drive the bike course or blatantly lie about their weight in order to achieve better power-to-weight numbers inside the platform. But the vast majority of issues typically are just user error, said Fischer. These people aren’t trying to cheat, they just don’t necessarily know how their smart trainer works or, in the case of Zwift with its more extensive requirements for top-level races, the rider might have done everything right but not kept the back-up data or calibrated all things correctly or some other quirk of technology.

The main issues tend to be: miscalibrated equipment, miscalibrated or not updated software or connections, or misreporting info (ie. the wrong category or weight). [There are also more extreme issues where someone can manipulate their avatar or artificially manipulate the data to get bonuses or go faster.]

What this ends up looking to a spectator is some results that seem crazy.

“If you look at the watts/kilogram numbers, it’s like ‘OK, not only would you be in the Tour [de France], that’d be a winning performance,'” joked pro Sam Long about some of the results he sees. Long also won the pro race in the Ironman VR 2 virtual event.

The Ironman virtual events have been run through Ironman’s virtual club—either with GPS uploads, trainers (smart or dumb), or using the Rouvy platform Ironman partnered with, which allows you to ride on a virtual course with your trainer connected to their system. For the pros, the cycling has been done entirely on Rouvy and has been slightly more regulated as it went on. The pro races, though, have had some money on them.

The age group events, by comparison, have had no real prizes to date—until this world championship slot announcement. And the results have been even more all over the place, with 40-minute 40k bike times and 60-year-olds logging splits faster than Olympians.

“I just got totally disheartened,” said one triathlete in the 50-54 age group, who’s been racing since the 1980s. He was so discouraged by the results he saw on Ironman VR leaderboard that he didn’t feel like doing any of the virtual events.

And that’s the biggest problem for virtual platforms: If people are too discouraged, then they don’t do it at all.

Zwift hosts dozens of races in their virtual cycling world every week. They’re well-versed in keeping it fair and keeping people invested. When races in the real world began to get canceled, Zwift announced a Pro Tri Series weekly race—open to any pros, for fun, no money on the line.

But to Long some of the numbers people were claiming didn’t make sense. He didn’t want to participate in that.

“I don’t think people thought there was going to be this much cheating,” he said. At first, the main concern was making sure everyone had the right technology and was set up. (One of the first Ironman VR pro races had Joe Gambles on an old version of software and falling nearly a lap behind because of a variation in algorithm.)

But now, with the number of people using these platforms skyrocketing in the last few months, the focus has shifted to creating a level play field, as virtual cheating becomes a bigger issue than ever.

How You Can Regulate Virtual Racing

That’s why Zwift has spent years developing a very extensive esports rule book. Because if the company wants to make sure its game is fair and if it wants to be taken seriously at an elite level—and make a pitch for inclusion in the Olympics—then it has to have real rules and checks.

Depending on the level of competition at stake, these include things like:

  • specific instructions on calibration
  • specific instructions on video verification of weigh-in
  • verification of connections and software
  • two sources of data that can back-up and confirm in game play

At things like the Zwift World Championships, this can even include everyone riding together in the same room on their trainers so their performances can be verified.

But at any given time, there are thousands of people on the Zwift platform. (In recent months, they’ve regularly had 35,000 athletes on at peak.) That means, for the most part, it has to be self-regulating and self-policing. You can bet if you put down some crazy numbers, other athletes on Zwift are going to notice and you’re going to hear about it.

Ironman, to a degree, is also counting on anomalies simply standing out against an athlete’s previous results and the community self-regulating. CEO Andrew Messick called it a “virtual training biological passport,” with the idea being that Ironman will be able to link an athlete’s current virtual results to past virtual results and past outdoor results. (Here are all the details about how Ironman will hand out 70.3 Worlds spots via virtual racing.)

Ironman won’t be pouring over every single result, but they will be focused on the top of the age groups. Are those results consistent with previous performances? Do they make sense? Can referees or officials reach out to confirm data files if something appears incorrect? There will also be a rulebook with regulations and guidelines—similar to Zwift’s—for the Rouvy virtual cycling platform that Ironman has partnered with.

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The most important thing, though, said Messick is that triathlon is and has always been about the personal challenge. You can cheat in an Ironman outdoors in real life too, but for the most part people don’t. “We always have an expectation that our athletes compete honorably,” he said.

In any of these things, whether virtual or not, aren’t you just cheating yourself?

What Will Virtual Races Look Like In The Future?

Of course, the reality is there are always cheaters and when it’s easy to cheat there are more. Zwift had to strip the title from its British National Champion last year.

As this continue to be a question, as people continue to feel uneasy about the legitimacy of virtual results, there are some new things Zwift is testing to flag results that are inconsistent with a rider’s previous performance. In some of the Zwift HQ rides, you might see actual flags appear over a rider’s head or messaging pop up in game.

It is possible to regulate cheating on a mass scale, said Zwift’s Fischer, but it requires a high level of machine learning and software expertise. It’ll take some time to fine-tune and perfect those things; it’s not just like flicking a switch.

While Ironman isn’t trying anything quite as involved, they are eager to see how this works. If they can fine-tune the rules, then there might be more virtual races with more Worlds’ slots. Virtual qualification offers a pathway for athletes who don’t have access to an outdoor Ironman event.

“But we’re going to have to see,” said Messick.

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