From sofa to stadium: how exercise and e-sports might impact the home

For most, the idea of a home gym has always been an unreachable aspiration. But with over a third of the world’s population currently confined to quarters, the concept of the home as gym has taken off in a big way. Alongside doubling as an office, the other role living rooms and bedrooms are having to adopt is that of training space. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of UK children that have tuned into Joe Wicks’ live physical education sessions on YouTube every morning this week – meanwhile, tabloid newspapers offer insights into how to achieve the look of his front room for less.                     

But can we call this upturn in interest for at-home workouts a revolution? Does watching an exercise class on social media really advance that far beyond the VHS aerobics video, bar the inclusion of a few shout-outs? Doing crunches on your couch isn’t new, but it’s currently necessary. What is more foundational is how our current situation foregrounds the home not as a gym, but as a stadium – a place where we might use physical metrics to compete digitally.

Our current situation foregrounds the home not as a gym, but as a stadium

This is one of the reasons that networked-exercise bike brand Peloton has seen its stock soaring in the last two weeks. Why? Because its system extends the live-stream class concept to include higher levels of community and competition. Users race against a live leaderboard, can organize private rides with friends and give each other virtual high fives. Another company, Ergatta, has (fortuitously) just launched a personal rower based on competing in time trials against other owners.

Header and top image: Courtesy of Zwift | Bottom: Courtesy of Peloton

Where this idea becomes really compelling, however, is when real-world pros transition to digital competition. Following the cancellation of the first half of this year’s professional road cycling calendar, riders from French team Groupama-FDJ instead logged on to cycling platform Zwift to race in a virtual version of the Denmark Cycling Union 2020 Cup. Athletes from the Mitchelton-Scott road team have since used the same platform to start hosting ride-alongs with up to 1,300 fans. They’ll be able to tour real-world locations, but also a variety of fantastical and challenging fictional landscapes. (Take travel publisher Rough Guide’s recent guidebook on in-game sightseeing as proof positive that exploration and recreation in virtual worlds is increasingly catching on.)

Zwift doesn’t just want to be a stopgap for confined cyclists, however. It already runs a semi-professionalized e-racing championship, and has aspirations to be its own Olympic sport by 2028. Indeed, the wider e-sports industry has been lobbying the International Olympic Committee for inclusion for several years. Intel was due to host a trial e-sport tournament in the lead up to Tokyo 2020, the first tentative steps to integration.

American sports bar franchise Buffalo Wild Wings released a video titled 'Sports Live On', showcasing activities done at home: 'Even when sports aren't on, sports live on'.

And that future could be given a significant boost by the current lockdown, which will likely focus consumer attention towards e-sports in a major way. With most leagues across the world on hold, and this year’s main international competitions – Euro 2020 and the aforementioned Tokyo Olympics, for example – postponed to next year, sports fans are hungry for any form of live action. With several cancelled stadium-based e-sports tournaments simply shifted online, and everyone from bookies to sports channels turning to these competitions to fill dead air, the industry is well placed to fill that gap. It even has the facility to digitize IRL sports, with La Liga clubs Real Betis and Sevilla choosing to play their cancelled derby on football sim FIFA 20 instead. Both sides were controlled by a genuine first-team player, and more than 60,000 fans tuned in to watch on games-streaming site Twitch. Formal One and Nascar are launching similar initiatives.

The line between amateur and professional is much thinner with digital sports

One of the big draws for e-sports is that ‘pro athletes’ and amateurs are both born in the same space: the home. The line between amateur and professional is much thinner with digital sports, as the bar to entry – consumer grade technology likely located in your living room – is far lower. This was highlighted by McLaren’s 2017 World’s Fastest Gamer initiative, which allowed anyone to compete for a chance to be hired as a McLaren test driver by playing a popular motor-racing title. Leading furniture brands are already recognizing the significance of this shift, with Interstuhl developing a chair targeted at gamers last year and Herman Miller partnering with computer accessories brand Logitech to launch a product range that meets the ergonomic needs of ‘e-sports athletes, gamers and streamers’ this spring.

Nintendo's campaign for its sold-out fitness-focused title Ring Fit Adventure.

And while platforms like Zwift are bringing a niche group who are already fitness junkies into the e-sports space, don’t presume that today’s wider gaming landscape remains mostly sedentary. New technologies such as motion tracking and accelerometers mean that playing mass market computer games can often involve high levels of aerobic exercise. Nintendo is the class leader here, with its popular Ring Fit Adventure title – which features a special fitness-focused accessory – having completely sold out since the beginning of March. The brand has subsequently decided to capitalize on this interest in gamified exercise, adding a similarly activity-based game, boxing title Arms (which doesn’t require any additional kit) to its annual North American Online Open for the first time, allowing gamers to physically compete in a nationwide sporting tournament while standing in front of their televisions. 

For those of us currently trapped indoors, home is somewhere we want to be competitive, not just comfortable

The wellness and gaming sectors have seen some of the biggest success stories of the last decade, and their increasing convergence is inevitable. As two key groups – athletes exploring the freedom of digital sport and a gaming community embracing more active forms of play – grow closer, the idea of domestic space as not only a place of exercise, but a sporting arena, will also grow. How the design of recreational areas inside the home will evolve in response will be fascinating to watch. Whether it’s best to accommodate networked equipment from brands like Peloton, or simply make greater room for free movement, it seems the holy trinity of sofa, coffee table and television could be disrupted – for those of us currently trapped indoors, home is somewhere we want to be competitive, not just comfortable.

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