I was just thinking the same with this latest Tour de Zwift. I have an FTP that would just barely put me in A category races, but I’m entirely new to racing – so I haven’t worked out any of the strategy, tactics, gamification aspects, etc.
I suspect that if I follow my power-assigned category I would immediately be turned off of racing because I’d be so far behind the pack of other A category riders: it wouldn’t be fun because I wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn anything as I’d always just be riding by myself and coming nearly dead-last…
This, combined with what are all very short and very flat routes so far in the TdZ (where pure wattage is far more important than w/kg) means that I have been (I’m sure much to many people’s chagrin) racing in B category races to get a feel for things. (I’m light enough that to match a 90kg C rider’s ~3w/kg wattage on a flat course I’d need to average more than 5w/kg, which is beyond me, so I figured B is a compromise for a race to still be competitive enough to be fun and interesting for me – and I’m still well outside the top 10 finishers…)
If there were a formal category system, it would not only better reflect real racing (UK system is similar to US system, and I would imagine pretty much the same everywhere as it’s likely somehow related to UCI?) but would also gamify racing itself: giving people an incentive to earn wins in lower-category races in order to move up the race category ladder to be capable of racing at the upper tiers – the same way racing incentivises people to progress up the categories in real life.
The basic idea is that you earn a certain number of points for different placings in races, and based on total points earned you qualify for higher categories. (Whether you go for a more complicated points system based on who else is in the race or not, as I believe is the case in some countries, maybe that could be phase 2?)
Take the British system just as an example (https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/road/article/roadst_Road-Categories_Classifications): here everyone starts at category 4. So in those races you would have all abilities; however, those that are very fast would quickly qualify out of that category based on points won (placing consistently in the ~top 10 in a couple / few races): meaning they must race in harder categories from then on (they cannot sign up for category 4 races any longer). In the UK once you’ve qualified for the next category up (3) you are never downgraded to category 4 again: so 4 is always a mix of all power levels, but only those brand new to racing – it’s a one-off that should quickly filter out those that enjoy and have some level of success in racing into category 3 and above.)
Could someone purposely stay in category 4? Sure: they could decide to ride inconsistently enough to never get the points to go to category 3. However, they wouldn’t be winning races (because if they did they’d have the points to force them into category 3), and they wouldn’t have any significant bragging rights because they’re stuck in category 4… It’s doubtful people would waste their time doing this on purpose?
This would also allow Zwift to put some seasonality into the gamification, if they wanted, by resetting the race season calendar annually so that people’s category qualifications must be contested again at the start of each new season – again, incentive to keep racing and continually get yourself into the higher categories (you don’t stay there forever once you’ve achieved them).
The real bragging rights and congratulations then come when you earn sufficient points to move up a category, and once you’re in category 2, 1 and Elite you have not only some proper bragging rights but also qualification possibilities for specific events (not only a “cat 2 race” but could have events like “nationals” that to qualify for you must be cat 2+ or whatever).
Anyway, if Zwift is serious about racing – which seems to be the differentiator it likes marketing – then a system like this is surely inevitable? Unless it’s only racing for pre-screened qualifiers in real world racing categories, and thus nothing that really takes off in-game for the amateur crowd (?)