There have been some controversial yet productive discussions surrounding aim training in the past year. We wanted to dig into the science behind aim training and provide a more thorough understanding of the topic based on evidence. In this two-part article we will be going over several major topics
- Physiology & Science behind aim training
- Is Aim Training Legitimate?
- How do we optimize our training design?
- And likely addendums as we continue to have healthy discussions around this topic
Again the main purpose of this article is to provide scientific basis to prove the benefits of aim training. We want to credit Aimer7 and Kahtaz who have established many of the theoretical and applicable principles around aim training. Our hope is to expand some of these theoretical principles but also provide some clarification about certain questions in the community.
But as a quick first…
Who are we? Performance Specialists and Physical Therapists
I’m Matt – I’m a Doctorate of Physical Therapy, Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Orthopedic Clinical specialist and a performance specialist in esports. I’ve worked with organizations (CLG, IMT, GZ Charge, Redbull, etc.) to provide wellness and performance initiatives and discussions around how we can optimize performance holistically. More importantly i’m a huge gamer -> #428 World Cup Solo W1, competed in CS:GO (cevo IM ha… Global), played in Clan TDA games for the original DOTA… and a lot more.
While my aim has not been as crisp as the young gods out there currently – I believe I have a unique perspective with my professional background coupled with playing at a moderately high level with the games I participate in.
And i’m Elliot. – I’m a Doctorate of Physical Therapy, Board Certified Athletic Trainer and Emergency Medical Technician. Like Matt I am a performance specialist in esports and performing arts. I’ve worked for major entertainment companies such as Walt Disney World and Live Nation Entertainment and performed biomechanics research at Marshall University with high tier musicians. I’ve brought much of my scientific insight as a movement specialist into my esports medicine practice and have been helping esports athletes decrease injuries and improve their performance. My gaming career has focused on content creation in Fortnite developing creative maps designed to improve your gamesense and mechanical skills from the perspective of motor learning.
While Elliot and I are the major contributors to this article – we will also be utilizing the expertise of Caitlin (DPT, MsC Anatomy and Clinical Sciences, B.S. in Neuroscience and Sports Science) to provide the neuroscience background to our understanding of aim.
Okay so let’s first get into the definition of AIM in esports or gaming
Key Concepts of Aim Training and Motor Coordination
Before we get into a deep discussion about the science & physiology behind aim training we need to define esports or gaming aim.
What is esports or gaming aim?
To be more specific – what we are trying to define is virtual aim. Virtual Aim is the ability of us to control a medium to direct a mouse reticle (cursor) at a target. In other words it is how well we are able to control our peripheral: the mouse.
Virtual aim has subcomponents we need to also clarify as well. For the purpose of this article we will be discussing aim primarily for PC gamers (as the majority of discussions have been around controlling the mouse). Here is our current (V1) definition for the subcomponents of virtual aim.
1| Tracking – The ability to follow a visual stimulus (target) with your mouse reticle
2| Click Timing – The ability to time an appropriate click on a target with a moving or non-moving mouse reticle
For those who are interested in how we define each of these in more detail:
Static Click Timing
Why is it important for us to identify these subcomponents? This allows coaches to provide more accurate training scenarios for their athletes targeting indivisible subskills of aim. The goal for us is to always break down concepts in terms of first principles (an assumption which cannot be broken down further) to provide coaching or support staff working with players to make the best decisions around aim. Or if you are working on your aim alone, you can design a program for yourself.
Aim is a Skill
Throughout this article we designate aim as a “skill”
skill is defined as the ability to consistently perform coordinated movement sequences for the purposes of attaining an action goal.
Skills are learned and perfected as a direct result of practice and experience with actions organized in advance of movement using a motor plan. Skilled movements are not locked in to the basic mechanics that comprise them but are highly variable and require you to apply them according to the environment and action goal.
A skilled player can take the fundamentals of any skill and apply it masterfully in any situation. Three types of skills that can be applied to gaming are discrete skills, serial skills, and continuous skills.
Aim is a mechanical skill that transcends all 3 types of skill. Aim can be a discrete skill when broken down into its core components in an aim trainer and only one is trained. Example: horizontal or vertical tracking and click timing. Aim can be a serial skill when you combine the X/Y (horizontal/vertical) axis into a composite task such as tile frenzy. Aim can be a continuous skill when playing competitively and you are utilizing the mechanical skill of aim in many situations in a random fashion. Example: Shotgun Flick -> SMG tracking -> Edit play -> Sniper shot -> etc. This hierarchy of skill is the foundation on which we build aim training protocols and how we should be making decisions as coaches and gamers as to where improvement needs to be made. To fully understand where continuous skill is lacking it is important to thoroughly assess discrete skill with tools such as this (1HP Aim Benchmark Map)
Throughout the rest of this article we will be focusing mainly on the discrete and serial skill of aiming and how to scientifically improve the fundamental mechanical skill of aim.
Physiology and Science Behind Aim Training
Physiologic Structures of Aim
Ahh.. finally. Let’s get down to the discussion of the actual physiology and SCIENCE behind aim training. To help paint an overall picture of the science we need to first start with some neuroscience and the physiologic systems involved in aim.
We’ll start at the top: the brain. Certain regions and connections in our brain control how we move and consequently how we aim. The two main structures I want to you guys need to know about are
- Motor Cortex
These structures control both gross and fine motor movements (larger and smaller coordinated movements) which we utilize consistently as we are aiming with both shoulder/wrist/finger movement. Our movement starts with activity in these regions of the brain, traveling down specific pathways (corticospinal tract) first to our brainstem -> then to our spine -> then finally down to the specific muscles of the shoulder, forearm and hand.
(shown an image here of the CST and the primary and secondary order neurons)
These are the structures that control our movement and how we aim. It is important that we define these first as certain adaptations occur when we perform either physical or virtual modes of training for our aim.
There are absolutely more structures involved in sensorimotor adaptations such as the basal ganglia
Modalities of Aim Training
There are two major modalities or ways we can approach improving our aim and control associated with the aim. The PRIMARY MODE of training is virtual training.
Virtual training (VT) involves utilizing an application to train specific subskills of aim (tracking and click-timing described above). It is the primary mode because it DIRECTLY trains our ability to aim through scenarios and exercises mimicking in-game environments. VT can be separated further into two approaches considering CONTEXT.
- Peripheral Control Virtual Training
- Esports Specific Virtual Training
Peripheral Control VT involves what has been pioneered by Aimer7 and Kahtaz with regards to utilizing a third-party application (Kovaaks) to train specific subskills of aim (tracking and click-timing described above). Aimlab and others are beginning to appear on the market to provide AI-based guidance for self-directed training. Peripheral Control VT utilizes scenarios (virtual exercises) within the third-party application to improve mouse control, click-timing and tracking. Some examples are:
- 1 Wall 6 targets
- 6 Tile Jumbo Frenzy
- Close Long Strafes Invisible
Esports Specific VT considers the physics and in-game mechanics of the game and involves custom maps within your game of choice to train the specific subskills of aim. Because each game title is different and support for custom maps may not always be present this approach of training is not always available. A key point to recognize with this method is that it may not always be as efficient in use of your time. For any motor-control based training the goal is to maximize repetitions per minute. With the constraints of certain custom map systems across different game titles, we are often limited in how many repetitions we can achieve per minute. Here are some examples
- Fortnite: Creative Map Aim Trainers (click-timing and tracking)
- CS:GO: Aim_botz (click-timing)
- Overwatch: Tile-Frenzy
The SECONDARY MODE is physical training which focuses on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the pathway described above. This involves specific exercises which address speed, endurance, gross coordination/motor control and proprioception. It is “physical” because it targets these physical skills without the context of gaming or use of a peripheral. Physical training is meant to support the adaptations achieved with virtual training but also ensure we are not hindered in our progress by developing injuries. Some examples are
- Bilateral Theraband External Rotation
- Wrist Extension with Dumbbell
- Composite Finger Extension
- Proprioceptive Shoulder & Wrist Exercise
Adaptations with Training
Alright now that we’ve established the physiologic structures and modes of training our aim we can get to what is actually changing when we perform virtual or physical training.
What happens when we consistently perform virtual aim training?
There major system of our bodies which respond to virtual training is the nervous. The majority of positive changes and improvements we see with our aim involves neural adaptations in the pathway listed above (Brain -> Muscle)
Key Neural Adaptations
Improvements in our aim is rooted in the theory of neuroplasticity – the inherent ability of our brains and nervous system to adapt. When we consistently perform aim training scenarios and exercises here are some of what we believe happens.
1| We process information in our brains more efficiently
This is based on the theory of cortical efficiency in which certain regions of the brain will have a decreased level/extent of activation over time when performing and learning a motor skill. When we develop adapt and become more familiar to any basic level of a skill there are less conscious efforts and thus overall less activity and use of the metabolic resources of the brain to muscle (motor system) pathway. In the case of aim training we become more familiar with the basic ability to control our mouse with tracking and click-timing movements represented by higher accuracy or scores in the kovaaks scenarios/benchmarks we participate in.
While there is definitely more to cortical efficiency than the reduction of activity (slight shift in representational areas depending on the stage of learning) – it is enough for us to understand how our brain makes adaptations to allow us to improve our aim. As a last note with our brains – there has been some evidence to show there is also an increase in gray matter (the part of our brains containing the bodies of nerves, connections and other protective cells) which is likely task-dependent. Harder tasks like aim training may require more nervous system demands requiring an increase in volume of the gray matter whereas a more simple motor skill like lifting your arm up will only be so demanding.
2| Signals travel more quickly in the “aiming pathway”
The signals in our brain travel more quickly down to our muscles and is based on the theory of long-term potentiation (LTP). LTP is the increase of strength at the “connections” of nerves (synapses) if there are consistent signals sent through the pathways. Whether it be changes in how many microsignals (neurotransmitters) are sent at the connection or how sensitive the second nerve is to these microsignals the result is improved communication between the nerve cells as a pathway is used.
So the more that we “train” our motor pathways with aim training, the more “effective” they become. Effective meaning faster signalling and traveling of information from the brain to the muscles. What is interesting to realize too is that the the regions of the brain are likely involved in how we utilize the pathways (click timing vs. tracking use the same motor pathway but have different outputs). We use the same nerves and muscles to track and time our clicks but depending on the region and context identified in the brain there is different output.
The bottom line here is that we can move more easily as we continue to train our aim because of these improved structural changes.
3| More efficient use of our muscle fibers
The other major adaptation I wanted to cover in this article involves the concept of selective recruitment or how well we use our muscles as we learn a motor skill. Based on the type of movement we are performing we only need a certain amount of muscle fibers. These are controlled by certain nerves we call motor units and involves an understanding of the slow and fast twitch fibers in our muscles. We have a genetic predisposition for a certain amount of fibers of each type (fast / slow) and based on the activity we are performing we are likely to only use some and not all of the fibers. You can think of your slow fibers as endurance fibers while fast fibers are the explosive, quick movement fibers (this is a simplification for better understanding).
When we perform a fast flick, we likely only need our fast twitch fibers however if we are unfamiliar with a movement we will potentially recruit some small fibers creating inefficiency of movement. When we train our aim over time we are better at identifying which fibers we need in the respective type of movement (tracking / click-timing) and thus become more accurate in our aim.
Hope your brains are still doing well after reading this information.
What about physical training protocols?
Physical training protocols primarily involve the muscular system however there are definitely some of the nervous system adaptations described above. We care about muscular system adaptations because they our capacity to perform the movements within aim.
Muscular & Additional Nervous System Adaptations
As mentioned above physical training involves performing exercises which help us improve our speed, endurance, gross coordination/motor control and proprioception. I do not plan on going into too much depth in this section as it is basically taking a course on adaptations to resistance training. Instead I just want to go over some of the key changes which are relevant to our tissue capacity when aim training.
1| Improved Local Muscular Endurance
I have preached over and over with my concept of the health bar that we need to develop our tissues capacity to handle repeated load to make sure we can play and in this case AIM TRAIN without worrying about tissue damage. When we perform physical training protocols and resistance exercises designed to build up our muscular endurance there are corresponding cellular changes that occur at our muscles
- Improved ability to handle chemical and physical stress over time (oxidative and buffering capacity)
- Our fibers adapt to the type of movement we are performing on a regular basis (IIx -> IIb)
- The powerplant of our cells (mitochondria) and the blood capillaries surrounding our muscles increase
- And quite a few other changes
The end result is that we can play kovaaks for more than 30 minutes without experiencing soreness and our ability to recover from a session of high volume physical and chemical stress improves (mainly due to enzymes around recovery and metabolite removal)
2| We have a better understanding of where our shoulder -> elbow -> wrist -> fingers are in space
This is rooted in the theory of proprioception which involves nerves at various locations in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, sending signals to our brain to identify where our overall body is in physical space. A prime example of proprioception is with the ankle sprain. When we sprain our ankle our proprioception is negatively affected and in turn when we do not properly rehabilitate our ankle we often are at higher risk for re-injury or re-sprains because our foot (demonstrate with a photo) might think it is in a neutral position but is in-fact in an inverted position when we are about to step or land.
So for physical training if we continue to work on developing our brain’s spatial representation of our upper extremity (right arm for aiming) then we can improve our overall control of our hand and consequently our overall control of our peripheral.
Alright we’ve established some basic scientific rationale behind adaptations we achieve with aim training. In PART 2 we’ll be discussing how you can OPTIMIZE your training along with helping you further understand aim as a skill. Check it out here!