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Aim Lab is the virtual gym all the kids attend. It wants to be more than that.

(Washington Post illustration; George “KingGeorge” Kassa/Aim Lab)

When the employees of Statespace returned to work Jan. 7 after a three week holiday break, they were treated to an agenda-setting speech from the company’s founder, Wayne Mackey. This was the year, Mackey said, that Statespace — which has raised $98 million in venture funding — would finally finish development on its core product, a perpetually-in-beta piece of software popular with gamers known as Aim Lab.

Aim Lab is a free-to-play virtual shooting range in which players — 7 million last month — run point-and-click drills to warm up. As far as gyms go, it’s pretty sparse: colorful orbs pop in and move against a default gray background, and players shoot them as an algorithm adjusts the difficulty of the exercise on the fly. At the end, players are scored on their performance, giving them a benchmark to measure themselves.

The app is remarkably simple. These days, for gamers at least, it’s also basically everywhere. Its ads run on esports broadcasts, and it has become a fixture on the streams of some of the most popular professional players and content creators in the world, which are viewed by millions of fans. In late January, Mackey was astonished to find that a sweater his company made in collaboration with the clothing brand Champion had appeared on a GQ list of best new menswear. It is shocking reach for a free product with no apparent monetization.

“We make no money, that’s for sure,” Mackey said. “One of our investors, straight up, when they led the round, said, I don’t care if [you] ever make money. Doesn’t matter.”

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Aim Lab is an unabashedly unfinished product. A disclaimer at launch warns that Aim Lab is “still very, very early in development (about 55% complete), and as such, lack of polish, and game-breaking bugs are to be expected.” Still, the app’s growing reach is commensurate with its ambition. Initially, Mackey says, Aim Lab sprung out of a relatively straightforward fascination with scouting in esports — in particular, the lack of individual player data. What, for example, was the esports athlete’s equivalent of an NBA player’s vertical leap? How would you measure it?

But as the app grew, so too did the vision. Training and warming up was a core part of Aim Lab’s appeal. Could data gathered to that end be leveraged for matchmaking, with players’ skill profiles used to place them into more satisfying games? There were brief flirtations with fantasy and sportsbetting, which Mackey says “weren’t really exciting.” In November, Statespace purchased Pro Guides, which operates something like a MasterClass program for esports, as well as coaching that matches professional players with paying clients. (This part of the business actually does bring in some revenue, Mackey says.) Then there’s the digital health arm of the business, which hopes to bring the company’s aim training and data collection capabilities to bear on motor skill rehabilitation and similar medical concerns.

“The digital health side came about really out of, you know, if you have something that can help people, would you use it or not?” Mackey said. “It was more of an ethical question than a business question.”

Aim Lab sprouted out of a start-up competition Mackey entered while pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at NYU. But the path to that point was far from obvious. Mackey grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where he said his likely career options were either factory or manufacturing work. Nobody in his family had attended college, so it wasn’t on his radar either. For a time, he worked as a manager at a call center, and bopped around between sales jobs. At one point, he was let go from Olive Garden for getting tattoos on his hands.

“If my teachers heard that I became a PhD in neuroscience they wouldn’t believe it,” Mackey said on a podcast in 2019. “They thought I’d be in jail or something by now.”

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Now, $98 million in investment money fueling Mackey’s vision has given Statespace some leeway to figure out all the things Aim Lab can do, before it has to nail down what it must do to make money. Among those things has been a foray into healthcare, with experiments conducted in partnership with Mount Sinai, the University of Indiana and the University of Delaware.

“Gamifying rehab is really nothing new,” Mackey said. “But it’s always the same story. Some nerdy scientists — like me, if I didn’t play games — goes ‘Well, I have these s-----, computerized tasks, and if people do them enough, they get better. But they’re not fun. But games are fun. So if I just make it a game [it’s a] billion dollar idea.’ ... But they don’t understand how difficult it is to make a game anyone will play twice.”

In steps Aim Lab, which Mackey explained might be useful as a sideline concussion test, or to gather data on patients who have suffered a stroke.

Another element of Statespace’s work is research — a strain of the business that flows naturally from the granular, reaction-time data Aim Lab collects. In one recent study, for example, the team set its sights on players’ sleeping habits and caffeine intake. Spoiler alert: More sleep led to higher Aim Lab scores; more caffeine, by contrast, uniformly lowered participants’ scores.

Other research is driven by more ordinary questions — and frustrations with the state of research and public science in the esports and gaming spaces.

“I get so many DMs on Discord where someone will be like, ‘I saw this video on YouTube. Is it true? Is it not true?’ ” Mackey said. “And it’s some terrible pop science article like, ‘How science will improve your aim in five minutes,’ and it’s [based on] a study of someone riding bicycles.”

One such practical study, for which several thousand Aim Lab players opted to share the results of their exercises, sought to find the optimal daily practice time. An hour of practice, Mackey said, didn’t seem to provide greater benefit than just 30 minutes. Those results give Statespace valuable information about how to further develop their product, and they’re helpful to users to boot.

That work in service of players has admittedly brought Aim Lab to some pretty strange places. Years ago, working with a professional “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” team, Statespace agreed to implement an unusual feature: the option to make the game run worse.

“They said, ‘Can you add a feature in Aim Lab so I can lower my fps?’ ” Mackey said. “And we were like, what? Why? And [they told me] ‘When you go play professionally in the matches, the frame rate is so bad that you’re often playing between 15 and 20 frames per second. So if we could train in the same way that we perform, that would be helpful.’ ”

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Aim Lab’s work with professional esports athletes and content creators has been a big factor in its success. Many pros use the software to warm up on-stream, and clips of star players hitting high scores — not obvious sources of entertainment, by any means — have racked up millions of views on YouTube. A smaller selection of pros has worked directly with Aim Lab to curate and design custom exercises, packaged and branded with their likenesses in the app. Though Aim Lab partners with and pays certain content creators, a majority of the relationships are initiated by streamers, Mackey said, rather than through proactive outreach by Statespace.

Some of that derives from Aim Lab’s genuine utility. The game “Rainbow Six Siege,” for example, has only a rudimentary aim trainer. For George “KingGeorge” Kassa, a content creator and former professional “Rainbow Six Siege” player, Aim Lab filled a clear void in his warmup sessions. A formal partnership blossomed from there.

“The large majority of the companies that approach me I turn down, even if they have great offers, monetarily," Kassa said. "It’s not just about that. It has to bring something to the stream. ... Every time that I’m playing Aim Lab and warming up at the beginning of the stream or partway through the stream I’ll have people say, ‘Hey, I really appreciate you telling me about Aim Lab. ... I could really, really notice my aim getting better.’ ”

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Not everyone has been quite so receptive. A few years ago, Statespace applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation, which garnered a positive response from the reviewers. Ultimately, though, they faced a harsh rejection.

“They denied our grant with comments like, 'I can’t in good conscience do this because it would encourage more people to play video games and I think that would have a terrible societal impact,” Mackey said. “The government and larger healthcare organizations are going, ‘How does this help the human condition?’ They don’t currently see video games as having a positive impact on people’s lives.”

What they couldn’t see, Mackey said, is all the auxiliary good that’s likely to come from continued development of Aim Lab. The program will hit version 1.0 sometime this summer, he estimates. A big goal for the team is to reduce friction for players and make it clearer what exercises they ought to do next. But even as he explained the work needed for Aim Lab to ditch the “early in development” disclaimer, he began to tease other features, a bounty of cherries on top: asynchronous one-versus-one multiplayer; ranked seasons; a replay feature for VOD reviews.

“We want to do all of it,” Mackey said, referring to scouting and partnerships with esports teams and healthcare applications and coaching and matchmaking and, well, everything else.