Peloton’s push into video video games may elevate biking esports

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Peloton’s pandemic bubble is beginning to burst. Earlier this month, the wildly popular at-home cycling brand, which had a surge in sales during covid-19 lockdowns, had its stock plunge soured by about 35 percent as revenue projections and its bricks-and-mortar competitor Planet Fitness announced gym memberships had nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Daniel McCarthy, assistant professor of marketing at Emory University, who has studied Peloton extensively since its initial public offering in 2019. “People are cycling back — no pun intended — to gyms, boot camps and spin classes, so the big question for Peloton is this: Does it have enough hooks to retain its current and future subscribers?”

For Peloton, one of those hooks will soon be video games. Earlier this year, the company indicated it was heading in this direction when it announced “Peloton Lanebreak,” a rhythm-based game that will become part of its subscription service for Bike and Bike Plus members in early 2022. McCarthy calls video games a “ logical next step” for the fitness brand as it looks to provide more unique experiences to keep users engaged in a post-pandemic world.

“The onus is on Peloton to keep new content coming,” he explained. “Gaming is a great potential source of usage of their equipment and another way to embed more people into their community.”

Video games could indeed be a lucrative endeavor for Peloton: According to market research firm NPD Group, the video game industry has continued to grow even as lockdowns have waned, with full-year 2021 sales expected to total $61.7 billion, an increase of 10 percent from 2020.

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According to Bud Intonato, Peloton’s vice president of product design and user experience, gaming was not on Peloton’s road map until several months ago, when certain staff members — particularly those who are avid gamers — encouraged leadership to pursue the idea. Internal research later confirmed it would be an effective way to continue growth.

“It’s not only for prospective members, but for second people in the household,” Intonato said. “So maybe you use the device to take classes with [star instructor] cody [Rigsby], but your spouse is not interested. … Gaming might be more familiar to them.”

Intonato and his team began experimenting with different mechanics that used the Peloton bike as a “controller,” and they developed about 10 different games, of which “Lanebreak” proved to be the most accessible. In it, users control a wheel-like avatar on a virtual track with three distinct lanes. Moving left and right between them requires twisting the resistance knob, with each lane containing different challenges based on the player’s speed and resistance level. Users rack up combos and complete challenges set to a playlist of popular music.

Although the game’s beta currently runs as a solo experience with asynchronous leader boards, Intonato says this is only the beginning. “In the long term,” he said, “we see lots of game modes and additional mechanics to expand ‘Lanebreak’ to more real-time community interaction.”

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And while he hesitates right now to use the specific term “esports,” Intonato admits that industry is certainly on Peloton’s radar. “Like with any great esports game, first you have to get the core experience right for the mass market, and that’s our focus right now,” he said. “But [esports are] something that we’re excited about exploring in the future, either with ‘Lanebreak’ or a future title.”

As Peloton moves into gaming, McCarthy notes that the company will begin to more directly compete with rivals like Zwift — a cycling app where users race in virtual worlds using power-ups — which could prove challenging. “When it comes to the gaming side of cycling, Peloton is not the market leader,” he said. “So, in some ways, they’ll actually be nipping at someone else’s heels.”

Like Peloton, Zwift also boomed during the pandemic, with company officials saying its subscriber count more than doubled since last fiscal year to more than 3 million users. Fueled by covid-19 lockdowns, Zwift became a go-to platform for real-life cyclists stuck indoors. And through collaborations with the International Cycling Union — the sport’s official governing body — Zwift pushed cycling esports into the mainstream, with perhaps the greatest boost coming from when it hosted the cycling portion of the Olympic Virtual Series as part of this summer’s Tokyo games.

“That period of time really accelerated opinions toward the viability of virtual cycling,” said Sean Parry, strategy director at Zwift. “And I suppose it was forced upon people, to an extent, but it showed that it could be done operationally and could be entertaining.”

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Like Peloton, Zwift is looking at ways to attract new users and keep its momentum after the pandemic. Parry says the long-term goal for Zwift is to produce an at-home bike of its own to simplify the game’s setup and to add a “portfolio of different gaming options” that can appeal to a wide range of potential users, from traditional, real-life cyclists to casual gamers looking for a unique fitness experience.

“Cycling esports is its own thing,” Parry added. “In order to be distinct, it has to be more than just a simulation. … We gently got into that with some power-ups, and I think what you’ll see in the future is more and more of that gamification coming into the racing, especially at the elite level.”

Parry says he welcomes Peloton’s entry into the gaming space, suggesting that it could increase the mainstream appeal of cycling esports as a whole.

“It’s something that I think is healthy, too, to keep us on our toes,” he said.

Once “Lanebreak” launches, Peloton and Zwift will both be using games as a way to attract and retain members — but they won’t be the only companies operating in this space. Within the past two years, a number of new platforms have emerged such as gamified apps like RGT Cycling and Rouvy as well as companies like Playpulse, which will launch a fitness bike later this year that it describes as “the first fully integrated gaming bike. ”

According to Jason Chung, executive director of esports at the University of New Haven, the field is becoming crowded, which should ultimately benefit consumers.

“At the end of the day, wherever you have success, you have competitors,” Chung said. “I hope there’s some vigorous jockeying in the marketplace between them, because it will bring prices down — hopefully — and foster innovation, which this space desperately needs.”

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Peloton will also have to contend with new and emerging forms of active gaming, Chung said. These include virtual reality, which continues to gain mainstream traction, as well as traditional video game companies like Nintendo, which could explore new fitness products after the surprising success of “Ring Fit Adventure” for its Switch console.

“I don’t think we’ve narrowed down yet the types of technologies that gamers or the general market gravitate to for gaming fitness,” he said. “I think we’ll see a lot of different modalities for different people in the near future.”

Only time will tell if Peloton’s foray into gaming can help it generate momentum in a post-pandemic world. But Chung says that regardless, the ensuing battle between these various cycling platforms promises to push the entire genre of active gaming further.

“That’s really when the gamification of fitness will take off to the next level,” he said. “And right now, I don’t know what that future looks like — but I’m sure looking forward to it.”

Gregory Leporati is a freelance writer and photographer covering esports, tech and travel. His recent work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Engadget and Ars Technica. Follow him on Twitter @leporparty.

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