I’m a mediocre first person shooter player. I’m not the worst, but you definitely don’t want me on your professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team.
Aim Lab—a new piece of training software from a company called Statespace coming to the digital storefront Steam in early access on February 7—was designed to make me better. Developed by four neuroscientists, Aim Lab gives players various shooting ranges, tracks their performance, and provides feedback to help them improve.
After just 90 minutes with a beta version of the software, I learned that I perform better with pistols and tend to overaim when moving my cursor left to right. According to Aim Lab ’s internal metrics, I raised my pistol accuracy from 67 percent to 77 percent and my rifle accuracy from 28 percent (yes, I’m that bad) to 60 percent. That feels like a dramatic improvement for a casual player using a beta version of the software for less than two hours.
Right now, there are several pieces of software that allow players to practice their shooting skills (Aim Hero is a popular one on Steam), but they're tuned more for entertainment than measurably improving a player's performance. If they want to do some serious training, professional esports players are still better off just playing more Counter-Strike. Statespace co-founder Wayne Mackey wants Aim Lab to offer an data-driven, science-based alternative that's modeled after the world of traditional sports.
“What we are trying to do goes beyond simple aim training,” Mackey said. “Our goal is to revolutionize performance and data in gaming, the same way data revolutionized traditional sports.”
Aim Lab currently has a handful of aiming exercises that take place in either a generic gray box, a wilderness map modeled on PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, or a temple map modeled on Overwatch. Each exercise has its own goals and metrics. pentakill, for example, gives the players five bullets and five random moving targets, while strafetrack asks the player just to keep their cursor aimed at a single moving target.
The current weapon physics are based on the most popular shooter in the world, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, but Aim Lab will eventually allow players to craft their own custom weapons to share with the community and nail down the feel of their favorite shooter. Players will be able to customize almost every aspect of the weapon physics—recoil, spread, damage, viewmodel position—so they can practice shooting modeled after Counter-Strike or any other game.
I played something called spidershot the most. When the rounds started, orbs spawned in random locations, and I attempted to hit them. Aim Lab responded to my skill level and—depending on my performance—orbs spawned in various sizes and disappeared at different speeds. If I took too long to shoot an orb, the next one would linger. If I hit a target, the next one would be slightly smaller. If I missed, the next would be a little bigger.
After a few rounds, I noticed an odd flow to the training. Every spidershot session started with a large orb dead-center in front of me. When I hit it, an orb would appear at my periphery and when I hit the new orb, I’d be back to shooting a large one, dead-center in front of my face. It seemed odd. How could I get better if there was an easily discernible pattern to the gallery?
But spidershot’s return-to-center mechanic is there by design, Mackey told me over Facebook Messenger. “This was highly influenced by work I've done in the lab,” he said. Mackey has published scientific studies in peer reviewed journals and continues to juggle his neuroscience research with running Statespace.
“Most of my work used eye-movements as a measurement to give insight so some visual/cognitive process. When you move your eyes, the image on the retina changes, and a sort of remapping process takes place in your brain to keep the world stable as you see it.”
Aim Lab wants to give players feedback on their shooting biases. “Are you more/less accurate when targets are on the left vs right side of the screen? Upper right corner? Just off center to the left?” Mackey said. “To [figure that out] in a game is difficult, and that is the purpose of returning to the center target in spidershot. It cleanses that spatial transformation so that the next target is always relative to a stable position, allowing us to get that critical spatial performance information.”
When a player finishes a round of spidershot, Aim Lab gives them a score and a page of data. There’s the normal FPS stats such as shots fired, targets killed, and kills per second, but also unique rings that show the player's overall accuracy and their accuracy within certain fields of their vision.
That’s how I learned I’m bad at hitting targets on the right side of my field of vision. As I observed myself during the exercises, I noticed I tend to overaim when swinging the mouse left to right. I started to compensate for that and got better. It was cool to get instantaneous feedback on my garbage shooting habits.
Mackey met his co-founder Jay Fuller in the PhD program at New York University. The pair spent five years doing scientific research before deciding to start their own company. “My work focused on computational models of the brain and behavior mostly related to vision and attention, while Jay's work focused more on motor control,” Mackey said. “It was a perfect match for the fundamental skills of gaming.”
They knew that practice makes perfect, but practicing Counter-Strike doesn't mean just playing a lot of Counter-Strike. Mackey thinks that a player who practices the fundamentals will have an advantage. “There is a reason that NFL players don't just play football over and over to get better,” he said. “They run, they lift, they practice specific drills.”
As of this writing, Aim Lab is still in closed beta, but word of it has spread to the esports community. “It sounds fantastic. It sounds like something I would use,” Tommy “Potti” Ingemarsson, a retired Counter-Strike pro with ten world championships to his name, told me over the phone.
He still plays casually but spends most of his time coaching and teaching. He told me that individual aim training was key to any team’s success and that, in Counter-Strike, he’d typically spend hours in deathmatch-style servers where he could respawn quickly and work on his aim.
“If you have a program like this it will save you hundreds of hours,” he said.