What Digital Doping Means for Esports—and Everything Else

It was a chilly March morning. Inside a neon-hued production studio, a group of elite cyclists clipped into their stationary racing bikes. They’d met in competition before. They knew when to sprint, whether to dive through a gap in the pack, when to stay on the wheels of another athlete, and how to manage headwinds in the final kilometers. Ahead of them was the digital starting line of a punishing race, up mountains and around narrow, unforgiving bends in the road. Just staying in the peloton and drafting would be a test of their sustained power and endurance.

It was the start of the UK’s first national cycling esports championship, held on the Zwift indoor cycling platform in March 2019. A Peloton or SoulCycle rider would have as much success competing in a Zwift championship race as they would the Tour de France. Even elite riders would find themselves challenged: These athletes had to train their bodies and condition their muscles, but they also had to learn the nuances of the video game, like when to use power-ups, temporary advantages that boost strength and stamina.

As the starting line’s red pixels faded away, the athletes began pedaling hard—pushing 400 or 500 watts—while their digital avatars followed suit. A small studio audience cheered the athletes on, clapping and calling out their team names.

One athlete in particular, elite cyclist and YouTube star Cameron Jeffers, was a clear leader throughout the race. Though all riders competed on nondescript stationary bikes, in the game Jeffers’ avatar rode a Concept Z1, which other Zwifters liked to call a “Tron bike” because it glowed like the futuristic lightbikes from the 1982 movie. Technically, anyone had access to the Z1, but its enhancements had to be earned by completing a series of difficult side quests, like climbing a grueling virtual mountain range in the Swiss Alps within a set time limit. Bikes like the Z1 weren’t just colorful, they were lighter, more aerodynamic, gripped the road better, and offered more power.

In the final stages, which took riders through the bubbling lava fields of a volcano, Jeffers pulled ahead of the rest of the riders. The screen showed he was pushing 961 watts, a staggeringly high amount of power for the end of a long, hard race. Even the announcers were shocked. “How much power does this man have?” one shouted. Jeffers easily crossed the finish line, earning double points for his team and winning the tournament, which included a special British Cycling jersey and a cash prize.

Except that Jeffers didn’t win on his own. His upgraded Tron bike, which aided his performance that day, wasn’t acquired through brute force riding and completing side quests, as required by the game, but with a simulation program. In the weeks leading up to the competition, Jeffers used a bot to ride in the game for him, often hitting an inconceivable 2,000 watts for distances of more than 125 miles at a time. (At his peak, Lance Armstrong rode only 110 miles a day during training.)