A grid of blue, balloon-like blobs is pinned against a chessboard shooting range. The goal says Aim Lab, is to shoot down all targets as quickly as possible with a gun tuned to the precise kinetic feedback of Riot’s wildly popular shooter Valorant. Whenever you connect to a target, another will appear somewhere else on the grid, meaning players will be judged on different vectors, including speed, efficiency, and precision. All the gruesome blooms we’re used to in a modern FPS – the optimistic blood spatter, the rag dolls, the gritty reload animations – are missing. Aim Lab is about raw, fundamental precision; the basic task of clicking targets on the screen reduced to the basics.
At the end of my first trial, I found that my accuracy hovered around a finicky, amateurish 50 percent. My most obvious weakness? Apparently I was having trouble landing shots on my right side, and Aim Lab suggested I clear out all the clutter on my desk that might be blocking my wrist. I put some papers on the floor and restarted the module, determined to get those numbers.
Released in Early Access in 2017 and free to play on Steam, Aim Lab is one of several platforms trying to solve a problem that has vexed the video game community for generations. To excel in a shooter – especially nervous, tactical PC shooters like Counter-Strike and Valorant – you’re expected to grind into the matchmaking crucible, throwing up rotten KDAs, while gradually getting more dexterous with your mouse. There is a lot of humiliation and shame ingrained in that process. But Aim Lab offers a kinder path to diamond rank immortality. What if you could instead train in relative privacy and receive constructive feedback based on your own analytics? What if all your Rainbow Six Siege matches didn’t end with an early, inglorious death, forcing you to wait five minutes for another bite of the apple? What if your poor performance wasn’t interrupted by a 12-year-old kid belittling your personality in general chat?
It’s a tempting proposition. And that’s what has made Aim Lab and other target training services one of the true commercial forces in professional gaming, spanning esports jerseys and Twitch broadcasts.
Earlier this year, Aim Lab brokered a sponsorship with Activision’s Call of Duty League, joining previously signed deals with Riot Games and Ubisoft for Valorant and Rainbow Six Siege, respectively. The company has partnered with some high-profile Twitch streamers, such as LuluLuvely and Ethos, and promotes full-fledged esports teams who use the service. (Scream, a Valorant player for Team Liquid, proudly showcased his Aim Lab routine on his YouTube channel – its click fidelity is inspiring and terrifying at the same time.)
Taken together, this sponsorship forms one of the key dividing lines between professional gaming and professional sports. It’s hard to imagine ever matching Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability without insanely long arms and a 40-inch vertical, and the NBA doesn’t want you to believe otherwise. (Actually, one of the most famous Nike ads of all time is about how you can’t dunk after you buy a pair of jordans.) But getting as good as Ninja? That’s in sight, as long as you have the right tools. Aim Lab has been downloaded 25 million times, according to the company. And all those people hope to finally, finally, get well.
“That’s an important thing that we’re trying to solve. To have a fingerprint of your performance.”
“Feedback that says, ‘You’re doing this right, you’re doing this wrong, here are opportunities to improve,’ even without additional intervention, is something people crave,” said Wayne Mackey, CEO and founder of Statespace, creator of Aim lab. “That’s an important thing that we’re trying to solve. To have a fingerprint of your performance. Knowing where you are and where you are relative to other people is one of the things you don’t necessarily get from playing the game itself. In a game you only know if you hit someone or not.”
This is the premise on which Aim Lab is built. For years, gaming superiority was an arcane art, known only within the limbic intuition of the top talent. But maybe with a fine brush we can unlock what it takes to become a great player by scientifically drilling out the tics and bad habits we’ve built up, in the same way a boxer would toil over his footwork. Mackey has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and he believes that first-person shooters — with their own pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination — are rich text for anyone interested in the machinations of the human brain. Anyone who’s sat for an FPS can identify that sublime rebirth when our combat reflexes fuse with our muscle memory, and target training software tries to track down that latent sixth sense hidden inside all of us. But shooters come in all shapes and sizes, meaning these boot camps can be adapted to whatever shortcomings apply to your gaming diet.
“In Apex Legends, there’s a longer time to kill, and that’s when tracking skills come into play,” says Garrett Krutilla, who designed KovaaK’s, another popular target trainer on the market. (Tracking in this context refers to a player’s ability to keep their sights on an enemy for an extended period of time.) “For games like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike, click timing is much more important because if you’re in a fraction of can shoot for a second, the target dies.”
“A lot of pure Counter-Strike players get into an aim trainer and do pretty well with the click-timing stuff, but then they’ll play a tracking simulator and say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this,’” Krutilla adds, “They still have a good cause, but they can’t follow because they haven’t developed skills yet.”
Personally, my white whale is Valorant. I’ve always envied those who have mastered the subtle art of the positional shooter – who can squeeze out headshots the moment there’s a whiff of flesh poking out of a distant hallway. I didn’t enter Aim Lab and KovaaK’s for the purpose of reincarnating into an ace on the competitive ladder, but it would be nice not to suck. It’s a fear that’s becoming increasingly relevant as the video game industry leans more toward a forever online, multiplayer-heavy format. If I work hard enough, if I click those balloons over and over, maybe I won’t be left behind when I get into my thirties.
It would probably take me months of discipline to confirm beyond a doubt that the training has fueled my abilities. But after ramping up a few FPS sessions with a 30 minute dose of Aim Lab, I can conclude that I don’t feel as useless as before. For total laymen, I think the coaching will help you feel less overwhelmed in the heat of a gunfight. I am a thematic gamer at heart; I play Battlefield to immerse myself in World War II, instead of crunching numbers and analyzing damage thresholds. But after popping enough of those balloons, those rivals on the other side of the map eventually lose some of their eminent threat.
It’s remarkable how quickly Aim Lab can slide your wrist across your desk on sheer instincts, without any interference from your pesky brain. The workout reminds you that FPSs are all ultimately rooted in muscle memory. Enemy players are transformed into static moving targets – just something to click on – making the competition a math problem rather than a first-person shooter. It turns out that there is nothing to be afraid of, as long as you feel prepared.
“If you can become more confident in what you’re doing, your skills and the fun you’ll have will improve,” Mackey says. “And that’s why we train in the first place.”
“We make sure the people we sponsor use the software.”
Both Mackey and Krutilla struggled to summarize the average target workout user. It’s a loose confederation of those who sincerely strive for lofty professional heights – a Twitch star, a league contract – and those who just want to punish their friends with more dominance. What is clear is that both companies are injecting a healthy dose of capital into the ephemeral, and occasionally eye-catching, esports industry. We mentioned the sponsorship of Aim Lab earlier, but KovaaK’s also has a deal with several streamers, as well as the Houston Outlaws of the Overwatch League. They warm up in their nylon jerseys, pop those balloons, before dumping garbage onto the pitch with a nuclear capacity that the average FPS addict can only dream of. “It’s very authentic with us,” says Krutilla. “We make sure the people we sponsor use the software.”
Mackey goes one step further. For him, the goal-oriented training and competitive gaming business are innately intertwined, and every sponsorship deal he makes contributes to a more prosperous future for esports. He has the money to distribute, so why not give it to the gamers themselves?
“I can’t imagine a better way to spend money destined for marketing. I can support the community and the streamers that everyone likes to watch, or I can give money to Facebook. It’s not even a question,” he says. “We have a real tide mentality. What is good for the community will in turn help us in one way or another. It moves everyone forward.”
I hope this attitude takes hold as the esports boom enters its precarious teenage years. Much has been made about the competitive gaming bubble — how much of the industry’s initial cry of investment money was misplaced as publishers faced the music on some bad bets. (Does Halo really need to have a professional league?) But perhaps esports has always had the ability to propel itself without relying on misleading, ongoing VC funding. Who needs the support of Visa, Amazon, and Apple when a slew of businesses has been built to serve the specific inclinations of the emerging Twitch generation?
Aim Lab and KovaaKs help gamers get better at first-person shooters, and both serve the community with natural fluidity. As the bloat atrophies, hopefully we’ll be left with an esports field that no longer feels grossly untenable. It’s high time to refocus this industry around those who want to be in this ecosystem for the long haul. Meanwhile, I’m at the firing range, making my way toward Silver. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.