Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Tech & Wearables

How Zwift and the UCI thwart cheating in high-level esports events

While most riders can just jump into Zwift races and have fun, elite-level competitors face stringent data-verification protocols.

Connecting a power drill to your bottom bracket seems like an easy way to level-up and win races in Zwift, right? Racers should expect to get flagged for cheating in the game if they try shenanigans like this.

While miscalibrating or absent-mindedly forgetting to “zero” your trainer and power meter before racing in Zwift might be cause for a slap on the wrist — the results from a specific event may be annulled — intentionally trying to deceive the game or referees carries strict penalties, the most severe being a lifetime ban from Zwift Cycling Esports events.

While being ejected from the cycling virtual world may seem harsh, real-world consequences may carry even more serious penalties: Riders who are enrolled in anti-doping programs and who are found to be in violation when competing in Zwift face the same penalties as riders caught doping in real-world events.

Related:

But before you think that the Zwift experience is ruined by more rules and regulations, requiring the purchase of additional equipment, reporting whereabouts to drug testers, and proving your weight, understand that the most stringent rules only apply to the premier-level races.

Now, both Zwift and the UCI have extensive rules for top races like the upcoming esports world championships. Both organizations divide the infractions and punishments into three basic categories: non-intentional, intentional, and egregious — or, in Zwift’s language, “bringing the sport into disrepute.” The rules between the two organizations are not identical, but they do overlap quite a bit.

Categories of rule violations and penalties

Non-intentional infractions include things like incorrectly calibrated or dysfunctional equipment, and the penalty is basically a disqualification from the event(s) in question.

Intentional infractions include things like entering inaccurate height or weight, using external trainer control, failing to provide data, or lying to race officials. Penalties here range from disqualification from one event or series up to a year ban from Zwift and a lifetime ban from elite-level UCI events and a 5,000 Swiss Francs fine from the UCI.

And the third category of infractions includes things like tampering with either the game data or the equipment, such as mis-calibrating a trainer to report higher power, or hacking the game. The UCI will hand out one-year suspensions for a first offense, and a lifetime ban for a second offense. For its part, Zwift has a six-month ban for a first offense, a one-year ban for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third offense from Zwift Cycling Esports events.

Again, please note that these rules are aimed at elite-level competition, not the great majority of events where everyday riders enjoy competing against one another around the world. That said, Zwift’s two primary codes of conduct apply to all: “Be nice to others” and “Don’t cheat.”

For elite-level races, here are a few things Zwift and the UCI are doing to combat those trying to game the system.

Data verification

Requirement: Two separate power sources providing two discrete data files.
What it means: For many Zwift races, competitors must have two separate power meters running simultaneously—a smart trainer and a separate, external power meter like the Assioma Favero Duo pedals with a Wahoo Elemnt recording power output and heart rate. The smart trainer must be connected to Zwift as the power source and the controllable device (it responds to changes in gradient to simulate climbing and descending). When data files from the trainer and the power meter are compared, the data file created on a computer running Zwift must not only be in agreement with the file created on the Zwift servers, but it must also be in agreement with data collected from the secondary power meter.

“Unless explicitly specified in the competition guide for a race, riders must compete using a power meter or smart trainer, paired together with a cadence sensor and heart rate monitor,” read the UCI rules regarding data measurement and collection tools.

All racers must have their trainer paired directly with the Zwift software.

The data requirements are specific with respect to data sampling frequency and display to further ensure fairness and prevent unintentional advantages to users across a broad range of devices with different levels of precision and accuracy. According to published rules, one must pair their trainer directly with Zwift, set the “Power Display” option in the Zwift settings menu to “instant” (not “3-second average”), while the device recording external power must be set to record at 1-second intervals. Zwift has specifically made allowances for recording heart rate on multiple devices, broadcast from a single signal transmitter.

Any time one races in Zwift, they’re being “watched” by monitoring software that can flag anomalous performances based on in-game data. Any tampering with or altering the data files (like changing values in a .FIT file, or changing the signature of the power source) created by Zwift on a computer—or collected by a bike computer paired with an external power meter—is strictly prohibited.

If one thinks they’re clever enough to alter a data file before sending it to Zwift’s “cloud” servers, keep in mind that the game also maintains a redundant record of one’s ride which is created and stored on the game’s servers, without ever being touched by a competitor. This file can be compared against the data files provided by each rider to ensure close alignment between the data values reported. Riders have been caught cheating trying to alter data files.

Upon request, competitors may be requested to furnish event directors with the makes, models, firmware, serial number and calibration information, slope number or calibration factor for external power meters, and a photo of the hardware used for gaming.

If you’re racing in Zwift and want to make it to the big races, expect to provide data from an external power source.

But there’s more than meeting requirements for hardware and software; Zwift requires an in-game rider effort verification, using the Watopia Three Sisters course as a standard for verification. Race officials prescribe three climbing efforts and a sprint effort. The data collect by Zwift, and also by one’s external power meter — two discrete .FIT files — must be sent to Zwift upon request. And the Zwift racing rules indicate that, “Failure to provide any such information reasonably requested… may result in disqualification.”

Some teams have made data collection and reporting a streamlined process, collecting riders’ external power meter data files automatically, and pooling these files in a centralized location. This disincentivizes tampering and allows team directors to manage game data verification requests in a simple and transparent manner.

Equipment verification

Requirement: All racers must meet minimum hardware requirements with current firmware updates applied to the respective real-world measurement tools which have been properly calibrated.
What it means: Everyone who races in Zwift must be familiar with the process of zeroing their power meter and also completing a trainer “spin-down” to ensure that the most accurate data possible is collected in the game. If one is forgetful — or reluctant — to update their power meter or trainer firmware, and this is discovered, they risk disqualification. Zwift racing rules are clear that all hardware must have the most up-to-date firmware applied, or risk disqualification if verification indicated that older firmware was used.

Whether intentional or not, using a miscalibrated trainer or power meter while racing is against the rules as it could provide an advantage for an individual. This kind of cheating, whether intentional or not will be discovered through reviewing the data files collected and examined by Zwift.

Before every Zwift race, riders perform a spin down to ensure their trainer is sending accurate data to the game.

Most Zwift events allow different hardware to be used if the hardware is on an approved list, as long as the trainer and/or power meter have been calibrated and zeroed.

Of course, different smart trainers can provide the respective owners with advantages, so for the inaugural UCI cycling world sports championships, for example, all competitors are required to use a Tacx Neo 2T trainer.

Zwift examines several data sources to compare them against files on their servers in order to ensure data is valid and unaltered. 

Rider verification

Requirement: Verification of competitors’ real-world height and weight.
What it means: Since racing dynamics in Zwift are dependent on an accurate reporting of riders’ weight and height, there needs to be an accurate and standardized method of verification.

Both the UCI and Zwift haves real-world solutions to ensure fairness with regards to competitors’ height and weight verification. While some may regard this as invasive—specifically asking for weight—this is purely to ensure fairness. Understanding that riders’ weights may fluctuate, a reasonable five percent allowance (e.g., +/- 3.6kg for a 72kg rider) between one’s game weight and one’s measured and verified weight is granted by the UCI for certain events. Riders must update their weight in-game at least once every six months, even if to re-verify no change in this data point.

The UCI esports rules differentiate between Zwift races that are hosted in a specific event location — in which all competitors gather in a stadium to compete side-by-side — and races that are conducted with riders in “remote locations” such as one’s own home. Riders competing on-site will have their height and weight measured by an official, while riders competing from remote locations must provide validation through specific protocols detailing video submissions for verification.

Be ready to prove your claimed in-game height and weight with a video upload of a weigh-in and height verification.

Real-world verification

Requirement: Field testing.
What it means: Invitation into some Zwift events requires riders to submit power and heart rate data files from in-real-life field testing on the road. While most riders can perform this testing on their own and submit results, allowances may be made for completing performance testing at Zwift-approved testing facilities for those who are diehard trainer riders.

Riders may be asked to provide their best 5-second, 1-minute, 5-minute, and 20-minute efforts, conducted on a significant gradient (defined as 5 percent or more). Data recorded and submitted must include both power and heart rate. Testing may be conducted over different rides, but all testing must be made within the most recent 12-month period.

The UCI Zwifting rules indicate that for specific events, “The Commissaire may ask a rider for any reasonable data which will aid in verification including but not limited to outdoor ride data, video weight verification, live-streamed calibration and performance tests.”

If you’re an aspiring Zwift racer, you’ll also need to have a ZwiftPower account to provide some objective, third-party data analysis. And, Zwift may also require riders to provide access to a public-facing Strava account, to further compare historical metrics against provided information.

Similar to the requirements for road racers, Zwift racers at the premiere level must enroll in doping control programs that help ensure fairness among all competitors.

Doping Controls

Requirement: Registration with a recognized anti-doping program.
What it means: If you think for a moment you can grab a script for a testosterone patch (a listed banned substance) and muscle your way to wins on your trainer, you’re cheating. Once a rider is racing at a premier level, they may be required to enroll in an anti-doping program (i.e., CADF, USADA, etc.), which requires competitors to specify their home, training, and work locations for unannounced visits from third party doping control agents.

Game infractions

Requirement: All racers must pedal their own bikes and refrain from race interference.
What it means: While the techie crowd just might be clever enough to set up a ‘bot in the game to do the riding for them so they can level-up in order to attain minimum requirements to compete in specific events, this is a specific violation of the rules. All riders must pedal their own bikes, unassisted.

Is your best pal cheering you on while you’re racing someone a trainer next to you? Ask them to be sure not to kick the plug out on your competition’s trainer, accidentally or otherwise. Impeding a competitor’s progress or affecting their in-game performance through actions in the game or in the real world are specifically prohibited, and violations could result in the rider’s ejection from an event, results annulled, and a ban from racing.

Licensing

Requirement: All racers must have a current UCI license and a NGB’s license.
What it means: All competitors in UCI sanctioned events must carry a UCI racing license. And to get a UCI license, all riders must also have a license issued by their respective nations’ governing bodies (i.e., USA Cycling). So while some racers may never line up for a parking-lot crit or an in-real-life national championship, competitors still need all of the event insurance, indemnification, and acknowledgment of rules compliance that a racing license guarantees.