What is eRacing?
Via the computer software ‘Zwift’ and a bike hooked up to a ‘turbo trainer’ (a kind of rolling road) competitors virtually race each other on time trial courses without having to leave the comfort of an air-conditioned room. The software recognises how fast the athlete is peddling and their virtual avatar inches around the course in tandem.
Zwift regularly host a weekly ‘Super League’ series whereby athletes from all over the world compete virtually, the event is live-streamed and watched by thousands of people. Zwift state that at peak participation approximately 13,000 people compete.
British National eRacing Championship 2019
The British Nationals were hosted in March 2019 by regulatory body, British Cycling, in conjunction with Zwift. At the qualifying event in February 2019, over 400 people participated from either their homes or a local gym. Out of the 400 the fastest 10 men and 10 women were selected to take part in the Finals.
The Finals consisted of three races: an elimination, a scratch and a points race. The overall winner being awarded a coveted white jersey trimmed with red and blue hoops.
After completing three races over two gruelling days, North-West based cyclist Cameron Jeffers was crowned champion and donned the Champion’s jersey. Ironically, Cameron Jeffers placed 12th in the qualifiers and was competing in the Finals by virtue of a number of drop-outs.
Stripping the title
Just a matter of weeks after the event in April 2019, British Cycling obtained an anonymous email complaining of the method by which Mr Jeffers obtained access to the specific virtual bike used by his avatar in the Championship winning races. Mr Jeffers had unlocked the ‘Tron Bike’ (a higher tier but not necessarily fastest bike characterised by its fluorescent neon-trimmed wheels) by climbing a total of 50,000 metres in the Zwift app.
Upon being presented with the allegation, Mr Jeffers admitted that an unnamed individual approached him with an offer to use an industry tool known as an ANT+ Simulator (normally used to test products) to complete the required 50,000 metre climb on his behalf. It was found that he hadn’t obtained the higher tier bike by his own volition.
Consequently, Cameron was stripped of his title, fined £250 and banned from competing in all cycling races (virtual or otherwise) for 6 months. British Cycling cited various violations of their code of conduct including unsporting conduct and manipulating pre-race data to gain an advantage. Mr Jeffers has accepted the punishment and congratulated the new champion graciously.
Questions raised / lessons learned
The issue of cheating is a constant threat in all organised sports, esports included. Particularly in circumstances, such as in this instance, where qualifying events take place from the comfort of athletes’ homes. This case is doubly concerning in light of discussions over the inclusion of esports as future Olympic events, with Zwift making a serious push to include their brand of eRacing within this bracket.
If the intention to launch eRacing to the global audience by way of the Olympics is to be seriously entertained, athletes need to be assured that they are competing on an even playing field with the same equipment.
Perhaps it would also be necessary for the creation of bespoke rules of conduct applicable to esports events. In saying this, British Cycling have produced specific eRacing Rules and Regulations. These Rules were in force at the time of the National Championships in March 2019, however, by way of a video on his popular YouTube channel, Mr Jeffers contends that they were not in force at the time of his infringing conduct.
More generally, it is apparent that the line between esports and traditional sports has become blurred. The advent of an application such as Zwift and the competitive tournaments that it has spawned (e.g. The British National eRacing Championships) has created a unique set of problems for sports lawmakers and regulatory bodies that they haven’t previously been required to legislate for.
The wide ranging issues such as hacking, tampering with software/hardware and the manipulation of data are in addition to the litany of traditional methods in which an athlete can cheat, such as doping (incidentally also fairly prevalent in esports).
Regardless of the problems faced and when considering the faults in the current system, British Cycling’s forthright and decisive response to the matter was commendable, showing that they take their regulatory function seriously.
British Cycling integrity and compliance director Rod Findlay stated that:
“Defending fair play in our competitions is at the core of our responsibilities as a governing body…The fact that we have been able to investigate the offence and uphold the charge reflects the strength of our new disciplinary regulations and our determination to pursue misconduct.”
Perhaps this case, and others like it, signal the need for other sports to update their rules and regulations in order to pre-empt the advent of competitive electronic versions of the sport.