I first heard about Aim Lab during an interview with Proletariat Inc. CEO Seth Sivak—we were discussing a viewer-submitted question about training tools for Spellbreak, and he namedropped Aim Lab as a company the team was working with to help players improve their aim and skills in the magic-based Battle Royale.
Sivak’s description of Aim Lab piqued my curiosity—why would a large developer, in control of their own tools and tutorials, want to point its players toward another piece of software to improve their skills?
It sounded like Aim Lab was something of a firing range for competitive shooter players, one that gained official support from both Ubisoft (for Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege) and Riot Games (for Valorant). Though when I found myself in conversation with Aim Lab co-founder Dr. Wayne Mackey, he laughed when I made that analogy.
“I think that’s something that we come up against constantly,” he admitted. “As we go out to more platforms beyond PC, that is kind of the initial reaction of 'wait, you can use a game…to get better at a game?' It feels strange.”
But for Aim Lab and its clients, its business isn’t just in mimicking the shooting patterns of bigger games to let you practice on targets—it’s a broader, neuroscience-based endeavor to support game developers who want a pathway for their top players to improve and maintain their performance.
“What’s the video game equivalent of running fast?”
First, a bit of backstory for Mackey. His path into the highly complicated field of neuroscience doesn’t exactly mirror his former peers from NYU. He describes himself as a former almost-dropout who finally figured out his path after trying to learn computer science for game programming.
“I ended up going to college in my late 20s and was a hobbyist game developer…enrolled at a local community college, thinking ‘man, if I could just get a piece of paper that says ‘computer science degree’ that says I can code, then someone will hire me.'”
For someone who hated math in high school, computer science still wasn’t much preferable to Mackey. But after a one-semester neuroscience course he chanced into, something clicked—he began to think of the brain as “the ultimate computer.”
Image via Mackey's personal website.
“But it’s a weird, alien computer we don’t understand!” he noted with delight. This path led him to a PhD at NYU right as brain-training software like Lumosity was starting to hit the field.
During his time at the institution, he watched professional sports figures filter through the facility or give talks at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, seeing how conventional athletics was taking advantage of the field to improve players’ fundamental skills.
And that got him thinking—“what are the fundamental skills of gaming? What’s the analogue of running fast, jumping high, being strong? And more importantly, if you could figure those things out, if you had that information, what other problems are there? Can you solve that?”
“We started [Aim Lab] with player training because we wanted to learn about those fundamental skills and offer a [training] solution to the community at large.”
Getting granular with performance
When pushed about why it’s useful for professional players to use tools like Aim Lab, Mackey pointed back to professional sports training. “LeBron James doesn’t practice five on five basketball all day, every day,” he pointed out.
When James is in practice, he’s drilling dribbling, free-throws, passing, etc. Meaning when pro players want to train for video games, it’s not necessarily the best strategy for them to repeat match after match, even in top-tier ranked matchmaking.
Let’s use Apex Legends as an example for a moment—by playing match after match, a player can obviously learn more about loot pools, map rotations, and get a sense for other players’ behavior. But it’s harder to pin down their individual strengths and weaknesses using going round after round in King's Canyon.
“The idea behind Aim Lab is really two pieces…one is kind of the diagnostics layer, and hopefully a diagnostics breakdown can shed some light on…how good am I at these fundamental components of skill compared to everybody else?” Mackey explained.
“For instance, if I’m worse at reacting to something in the upper left portion of my visual field—the upper left portion of the screen—that’s something we can diagnose, and we can understand that through the data collection process of you playing.”
This leads to the second layer, where players can utilize personalized training regimens to improve those particular micro-skills. “We’ll create training scenarios for you that take that information, and personalize ways for you to get better.”
“So if you’re worse at reacting to something in the upper left portion of the screen, you'll see more targets on the upper left portion of the screen than elsewhere, there'll be a little larger than they would be elsewhere stay on the screen a little longer.”
Aim Lab also has an Academy feature that works like a Masterclass for competitive players—tutorial content mixed with “interactive experiential learning.” It’s a step beyond just watching pro players on Twitch and attempting to replicate their best plays. Mackey pointed out that if you learn something watching a pro player on YouTube, it’s not necessarily likely that the same scenario that player was in will replicate itself when you pop into the same game.
Using Aim Lab’s Academy feature (with the games it currently supports), players can quickly be placed in these higher-level scenarios, with instructions and drills to let them practice high-level maneuvers.
Mackey’s had a chance to review a lot of data about this training, and explained that while it doesn’t have high-level data for every Aim Lab user (it allows users to share data points like age, location, sleep rates, caffeine usage, etc. through an opt-in system, but only captures screen data for the rest of its users), the team has been able to learn a lot about player skill across a number of different games.
And as for the statistic that most surprised Mackey? He explained that he thought “the lion’s share of importance” for what made a successful player would be some mix of motor and perceptual skills, especially for shooters.
“But I was surprised at how large of a role visual attention capacity and visual memory capacity were, especially on games like Overwatch,” he said. “It’s a six-on-six game, there’s a lot happening at the same time, and your perceptual systems are overloaded with so much going on.”
Why do game studios turn to Aim Lab?
Mackey’s athletics comparisons and practice suggestions make sense on first blush, but it’s still somewhat eyebrow-raising that developers would work with this company to replicate their weapons and traversal systems in another software system…when they have their own software platform that already has these tools built-in.
Above: A look at how Rainbow Six Siege training looks inside Aim Lab
A Ubisoft spokesperson explained why they went to Aim Lab and didn’t just evolve their own in-game tutorials: "Rainbow Six Siege’s tutorials are designed to help newcomers learn the basics of the game. They are very different from a service like Aim Lab, which lets players who are already very good get even better with specialized training,” they explained.
“Siege is a complex game and there is a steep learning curve for beginners; as a dev team, we prioritize improving the early game experience to help new players have an enjoyable experience and continue to play.”
“This is why we are happy to partner with a service such as Aim Lab, which caters to players on the other end of the spectrum."
Riot Games head of partnerships Matthew Archambault echoed these sentiments in explaining their company’s partnership with Aim Lab, describing it as “additive, not exclusionary, allowing more players to connect with Valorant through their technology.”
For his part, Mackey explained that Aim Lab operates with a mix of official and unofficial support, with the ability to replicate mouse sensitivity and field-of-view for over 500 games. “Publisher relationships like Riot and Ubisoft allow us to go into IP territory, and to create many more game-specific things like replicate maps and weapons in partnership with them,” he said.
Additionally, there’s a bit of an esports marketing flourish that all this player data provides. Mackey explained that the hope is for one day that developers partnering with Aim Lab can provide relevant stats when featuring a player during live event broadcasts—the same way you can see stats for Football or Basketball players during NFL or NBA broadcasts.
Mackey still describes Aim Lab as being “in Beta,” and that it’s “about 60 percent done or so,” but he sees a long road ahead for the business of working with developers and players to create these kinds of stat-driven training spaces.
Though the business of esports broadly has its own challenges, it’ll be interesting to see if other developers interested in sticking around in the space follow Ubisoft and Riot in partnering with the training company—or further yet, taking cues from Mackey’s work to get their own in-house, professional atheletics-inspired training tools that their players can utilize.