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Illustration by Jarett Sitter / The Verge

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Pro gaming tools are helping streamers get paid

Software like Aim Lab and KovaaK’s are key parts of the esports ecosystem

A grid of blue, balloon-like blobs are pinned against a checkerboard shooting range. The goal, says Aim Lab, is to pop all of the targets as fast as you can with a pistol that’s been tuned to the precise kinetic feedback of Riot’s wildly popular shooter Valorant. Whenever you connect with a target, another one will materialize somewhere else on the grid, meaning that players will be graded on a variety of different vectors including speed, efficiency, and precision. All of the gruesome flourishes we’ve come to expect in a modern FPS — the sanguine blood splatters, the ragdoll corpses, the frilly reload animations — are missing. Aim Lab is about raw, fundamental precision; the basic task of clicking targets on the screen reduced to its bedrock.

At the end of my first trial, I learned that my accuracy was hovering around a piddly, amateurish 50 percent. My most obvious weak spot? Apparently, I struggled landing shots to my right, and Aim Lab suggested clearing out any clutter on my desk that might be blocking my wrist. I moved some papers to the floor and booted up the module again, determined to get those numbers up.

Aim Lab, which was released into Early Access in 2017 and is free to play on Steam, is one of the many platforms attempting to solve a problem that’s vexed the video game community for generations. To excel at a shooter — particularly twitchy, tactical PC shooters like Counter-Strike and Valorant — you are expected to grind away in the matchmaking crucible, throwing up putrid KDAs, as you gradually grow more deft with your mouse. There is a lot of humiliation and disgrace baked into that process. But Aim Lab offers a kinder path toward Diamond-rank immortality. What if you could instead train in relative privacy and receive constructive feedback based on your own analytics? What if every one of your Rainbow Six Siege matches didn’t end with an early, inglorious death, forcing you to wait five minutes for another bite at the apple? What if your bad performances weren’t punctuated by a 12-year-old kid disparaging your personhood in the general chat?

It’s an enticing proposition. And that’s what has made Aim Lab, and other aim-training services, one of the true commercial forces in professional gaming, plastered across esports jerseys and Twitch broadcasts.

Earlier this year, Aim Lab brokered a sponsorship with Activision’s Call of Duty League, joining it with previously established deals with Riot Games and Ubisoft for Valorant and Rainbow Six Siege, respectively. The company has partnered with a number of high-profile Twitch streamers, like LuluLuvely and Ethos, as well as promoting full-fledged esports teams that use the service. (ScreaM, a Valorant player for Team Liquid, has proudly showcased his Aim Lab routine on his YouTube channel — his click fidelity is simultaneously inspiring and terrifying.)

Taken together, these sponsorships represent one of the core lines of demarcation that separates professional gaming and professional sports. It’s hard to imagine ever matching Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability without freakishly long arms and a 40-inch vertical, and the NBA doesn’t want you to believe otherwise. (In fact, one of the most famous Nike ads of all time is about how you won’t be able to dunk after purchasing a pair of Jordans.) But to become as good as Ninja? That’s in sight, so long as you have the right tools. Aim Lab has been downloaded 25 million times, according to the company. And all of those people are hoping to finally, definitively, get good.

“Feedback that says, ‘You’re doing this right, you’re doing this wrong, here’s where there’s opportunities to improve,’ even without additional intervention, is something that people crave,” says Wayne Mackey, CEO and founder of Statespace, maker of Aim Lab. “That’s a key thing we’re trying to solve. To have a thumbprint of your performance. Knowing where you’re at, and where you’re at relative to other people, is one of things you don’t necessarily get from playing the game itself. In a game, all you really know is whether you hit someone or not.”

This is the premise that Aim Lab is built upon. For years, gaming superiority was an arcane art, known only within the limbic intuition of the top-level talent. But perhaps, 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 accumulated in the same way a boxer might toil over their footwork. Mackey has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and he believes that first-person shooters — with their native pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination — are a rich text for anyone interested in the machinations of the human brain. Anyone who’s sat down in front of an FPS can identify that sublime rebirth when our combat reflexes meld with our muscle memory, and aim-training software looks to unearth that latent sixth sense hidden inside all of us. But shooters come in all shapes and sizes, which means that these bootcamps are adaptable to whatever deficiencies that 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 aim trainer on the market. (Tracking, in this context, refers to a player’s ability to keep their crosshairs 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 can shoot in just a split-second, the target dies.”

“A lot of pure Counter-Strike players come into an aim-trainer and do pretty well with the click-timing stuff, but then they’ll play a tracking simulator and be like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this,’” adds Krutilla. “They still have good aim, but they can’t track, because they haven’t developed skills quite yet.”

Personally, my white whale is Valorant. I’ve always been jealous of those who’ve mastered the subtle art of the positional shooter — who can squeeze out headshots at the very moment a smidge of flesh protrudes out of a distant corridor. I did not enter Aim Lab and KovaaK’s with the goal of reincarnating into an ace on the competitive ladder, but it would be nice to not suck. It’s an anxiety that’s becoming increasingly relevant as the video game industry tilts more towards a forever-online, multiplayer-heavy format. If I work hard enough, if I click on those balloons over and over again, maybe I won’t be left behind as I get deeper into my 30s.

It would likely take me months of discipline to confirm, without question, that the training has juiced my abilities. But after ramping up a few FPS sessions with a 30-minute dose of Aim Lab, I can conclude I don’t feel quite as useless as I did before. For total laymen, I think the coaching will help you feel less overwhelmed in the heat of a firefight. I am a thematic gamer at heart; I play Battlefield in order to immerse myself in World War II, rather than to crunch numbers and analyze damage thresholds. But after popping enough of those balloons, eventually those rivals on the other side of the map lose some of their eminent menace.

It’s remarkable how quickly Aim Lab can make your wrist glide across your desk on pure instincts, without any interference from your pesky brain. The training reminds you that, at the end of the day, FPSes are all rooted in muscle memory. Enemy players are transformed into static moving targets — just another thing to click on — rendering the competition a math problem rather than a first-person shooter. It turns out that there’s nothing to fear, so long as you feel prepared.

“If you can build up your confidence in what you’re doing, that will improve your skills and how much fun you’re having,” says Mackey. “And that’s why we’re training in the first place.”

Both Mackey and Krutilla struggled to sum up the average aim-training user. It’s a loose confederation of those who genuinely aspire towards lofty professional heights — a Twitch star, a league contract — and those who simply want to punish their friends with greater dominance. What is clear is that both of these companies are injecting a healthy dose of capital into the ephemeral, and occasionally flagging, esports industry. We mentioned Aim Lab’s sponsorships earlier, but KovaaK’s also has a deal with a variety of streamers, as well as the Overwatch League’s Houston Outlaws. They warm up in their nylon jerseys, popping those balloons, before laying waste to the field 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 are using the software.”

Mackey goes a step further. To him, the aim-training business and the competitive gaming business are congenitally entwined, and every sponsorship deal he inks is helping seed a more prosperous future for esports. He has the money to spread around, so why not give it to the gamers themselves?

“I can’t imagine a better way to spend money that’s earmarked for marketing. I can support the community and the streamers that everyone loves watching, or I can give money to Facebook. It’s not even a question,” he says. “We have a real rising tide mentality. Whatever is good for the community, in turn, will help us in some way. It moves everyone forward.”

I hope this attitude takes hold as the esports boom enters its uncertain adolescent years. Much has been made of the competitive gaming bubble — how a lot of the initial shriek of investment cash in the industry was misplaced, as publishers faced the music on some bad bets. (Does Halo really need to have a professional league?) But maybe esports always possessed the ability to buoy itself without relying on specious, running-in-the-red VC finance. Who needs patronage from Visa, Amazon, and Apple when there’s a suite of companies built to serve the specific inclinations of the ascendent Twitch generation?

Aim Lab and KovaaK’s help gamers get better at first-person shooters, and both serve the community with natural fluency. As the bloat atrophies away, hopefully we’ll be left with an esports field that no longer feels grossly unsustainable. It’s high time to reorient this industry around those who want to be in this ecosystem for the long haul. In the meantime I’ll be at the range, grinding my way towards Silver. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.