When virtual cycling becomes a very social experience

Author: Simona Kruhar Gaberšček | Read time: 8 min

Zwift, a multiplayer online cycling and running platform which enables users to train and compete in a virtual world, has left a big impact since it was launched seven years ago. Chris Snook, Communications Director at Zwift, shares the details of their success.

“Look, I think there’s something in it about riding with other people virtually, and turn that into a very social experience,” said Eric Min, Zwift’s Co-Founder and CEO, to his business partner as he was considering his new business move. In his conversation for Forbes, he revealed that his initial idea to create an online platform that would connect cyclists and runners was born out of his own personal experience of indoor riding. Having tried different products and not finding them engaging enough, he was looking for a more impactful experience. This idea developed into a company that both partners created together with two other business partners in California in 2014. In the seven years since then, the company growth skyrocketed, and according to Chris Snook, the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated their growth even further.

Fostering the feeling of community with purpose

“When Zwift launched the intention, it was always to be a global company, but I was surprised how quickly the global community embraced the platform. The community has been very open to drive innovation, pushing us to introduce new features and opportunities,” begins Snook. One of these features, requested by the Zwift community, were events. “The audience on the platform started to arrange events themselves on social media platforms such as Facebook. They would say, “Let’s do a race” and we witnessed the community doing this, so we thought to introduce the events feature. We now have over 200 events taking place every week on the platform. That is now a key part of what we do,” says Snook. They have found their mission in nurturing and encouraging the community in order to facilitate the new experiences they want to have and create on the platform. “Covid-19 accelerated that growth. The platform gave them not only a way to exercise but also an opportunity to socialise. This again goes back to the social aspect and to the sense of community and belonging, which is what sets us apart from other gaming platforms,” believes Snook.

In the last two years, the usual way of doing things has changed, and people started doing more things from home, including exercise. During the first lockdowns, many were buying exercise bikes and fitness equipment, to the point that it was practically sold out. This meant more business for Zwift as people became used to the idea that they can exercise in the comfort of their homes, so they began emphasizing convenience in their marketing messages. In the past, they targeted mainly serious athletes, cyclists, runners and triathletes, but over the recent years, they recognized the potential of also appealing to recreational athletes. “That is what we see as our opportunity now, we target people who ride bikes or run outdoors regularly, which has helped us expand our audience,” reveals Snook.

Their data shows that more than 4 million people have created accounts on Zwift, the number of peak concurrent users is 47,000, which is an increase compared to 18,000 from the pre-pandemic peak. The most popular time to cycle is weekdays at 6 p.m. (local time). “We usually see peak concurrent user numbers between 6 – 7 p.m. GMT, with Tuesday evening being the most popular time,” continues Snook.

Training with fun

‘Play and fun’ is at the core of Zwift’s philosophy. The platform is designed around nine different ‘worlds’, which currently include: Watopia, Makuri Islands, London, France, Paris, Innsbruck, New York, Yorkshire and Richmond. Each landscape offers different trails, allowing the participants to completely immerse themselves in the cycling or running experience. “Play and fun is everything we do. If you have seen our adverts, they are all about fun and performance. We want to create an experience that people enjoy and return to, so it is about serious training with an element of fun. The users also receive a training plan that includes all their performance data. As our lead coach told me recently, the best training plan is the one you actually complete, which is totally true. If you don’t complete the training, the plan isn’t working. That is why we are trying to gamify the platform – to make it fun and engaging, so that people want to come back and complete the training. We have gamified the experience with visual goals to keep them engaged and motivated, which you can’t have in the physical world,” elaborates Snook.

An exciting esports opportunity

In addition to building the community, they see their connection with esports as one of the most exciting opportunities in their seven-year history. They entered partnerships with some of the major players, including the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and World Triathlon (formerly International Triathlon Union – ITU). In collaboration with the International Olympic Committee, the platform also hosted the first-ever virtual cycling event (Olympic Virtual Series). “We are helping to create an entirely new sport in a sense. It has been a wild-ranging journey and we are about to go to the next level of this journey,” describes Snook.

He believes that Zwift is uniquely positioned in the sense that they combine both traditional sports and esports. “The platform was born from video games, but in order to be able to use it, you have to be physically capable. It appeals more to the traditional core values of physical sport by promoting health and well-being over pure engagement, and that is what we are looking to do with the governing bodies like the UCI and ITU. We are working closely with the UCI, introducing cycling in esports – from road cycling to BMX and mountain biking. Recently, we also agreed with the ITU to use our platform for esports triathlon,” continues Snook, mentioning also the innovative concept Arena Games Triathlon, powered by Zwift and pioneered by the Super League Triathlon. He sees these innovations as an opportunity to open the door to both traditional sports and gaming, appealing to traditionalists as well as younger generations who relate more to esports: “Our CEO Eric Min believes in and wants to have a positive social impact on society by encouraging a healthier and more active lifestyle, particularly among younger people.”

Their ambition is to change the future of the Olympic Games

Apart from physical exercise, competitions are an important component of Zwift, and the platform has already signed deals with some of the rights holders. The second edition of the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships took place at the end of February, and last year, as already mentioned, they hosted the first cycling Olympic Virtual Series. “The main focus of these partnerships was on engaging our global audience, having them participate in esports. The Olympic series was a test for the IOC and UCI to see if it is worth doing it again. We had a unique opportunity to be able to bring in a number of Olympic champions from the past and the present to join in and engage with the global Zwift community. We had rides led by Olympians such as Chris Hoy,” reveals Snook. His perspective is that this opens up questions about the future of the Olympic Games and esports: “Something that is definitely going to be an ambition of ours is to see Olympic esports on our platform. Being headquartered in LA, LA 2028 Summer Olympics are a natural target for us – it would feel like home coming to us.”

Invested in growing women’s pro cycling audience

Zwift signed a four-year deal with the A.S.O. and is now confirmed as presenting partner of the Tour de France Femmes. Their intention is to grow women’s pro cycling audience. “Our audience today is reflective of the traditional cycling audience, which is male dominated at the moment, but we are actually slightly ahead of the industry average: we run about 20% of women on the platform. But we want to grow that, which is why we want to invest in the women’s edition of the Tour de France,” reveals Snook. Zwift and the A.S.O. have joined forces before – last year, they successfully hosted the virtual race after the Tour was postponed due to Covid-19, where they negotiated to only host the Virtual Tour de France if it allowed both male and female cyclists to compete. “They were very supportive and we ran the women’s race with the same duration, the same courses, the same distances and the same broadcast exposure. We were using the same broadcasters that the traditional race was broadcast on: Eurosport across Europe, NBC in the USA and CBC in Australia. This gave female cyclists more exposure and helped grow women’s audience on Zwift. The winner of the Virtual Tour de France acquired more followers on her social accounts than she had in her entire racing career,” enthusiastically describes Snook. While the Tour de France is traditionally the most watched cycling race in the world, the Tour de France Femmes will see its inaugural edition this year. “We wanted a four-year deal because this needs a longer-term investment. This was the key for us – to not just sponsor but also to promote female cycling and increase exposure for the sport,” he stresses.

Alongside their connections with sports organisations, Zwift’s partners also include professional cycling teams, for example the British professional cycling team INEOS Grenadiers. Snook emphasizes that to establish their credibility, it has been important for them, ever since the early beginnings, to work with professional teams who would inspire other platform users. For example, they have included the star rider of INEOS Grenadiers, Geraint Thomas, in their advertising, and they also partnered with German triathlete and world record holder Jan Frodeno. “All these athletes are using the platform for their training, which is a very big part of Zwift’s credibility. As it is an open platform, our users are always able to log in and ride alongside professionals like Mark Cavendish who attract thousands of people from all over the world.”

Metaverse existed even before it was the metaverse

Opportunities seem endless for Zwift, but what are their next challenges? Snook shares that their current focus is on making the platform even more accessible and easier to use. “That is one of the reasons why we are launching our own hardware this year. The hardware is going to be the key to helping attract more people to the platform, because it can be quite complicated for them to understand the experience and what they need to purchase to have access to this experience. For this reason, we want to make their journey even better and easier. This is going to be our focus in the next 12 months,” he reveals about their plans for the near future.

Ever since Meta, formerly Facebook, introduced their idea of the metaverse, this new virtual network has been receiving a lot of attention. “The metaverse has actually been coming for years and years, only it was not called that. Eric (Zwift’s CEO, A/N) really wants to focus on the community aspect and create tools that will empower communities to start creating their own experiences. We have thousands of people on the platform and they will always be one step ahead of us, so we need to provide the tools in advance that will allow them to ride along. With the development of the metaverse, the possibilities to create these tools will go even further. This is the direction for our future,” concludes Snook.

The interview was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 16 (March 2022).