Aim assist in the crosshairs
When a virtually unknown, 14-year-old “Fortnite” competitor playing under the name sF Roller won a solo “Fortnite” Championship Series in May, earning $25,000 and shocking his mother, he had an important announcement to tweet: “thank you aim assist.”
Aim assist is a feature enabled for players who use controllers — as opposed to a mouse and a keyboard — that helps guide the crosshairs toward opponents automatically. It is added to compensate for the fact that aiming with a thumbstick is more difficult than with a mouse, a far more accurate tool. Roller’s victory, aided by aim assist, set off a powder keg.
After May’s tournament, “Fortnite” pros and commentators heaped insults on players who use controllers. To them, it was highly unlikely that controller players could have hit the shots they did without the help of aim assist. Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, the player who famously won $3 million at last year’s “Fortnite” World Cup, tweeted game footage that showed sF Roller’s shots were uncannily accurate, snapping toward his opponent despite a hampered line of sight.
The aim assist debate isn’t new to esports, but the stakes have certainly increased. Prize pools in shooters like “Fortnite” are worth millions of dollars, and many pros who play on mouse and keyboard have become more comfortable characterizing aim assist as a form of cheating. But while the notion that no player should have an unfair advantage over others might be simple enough in basketball or tennis, where strict rules govern the materials and dimensions of equipment and the court, efforts to guarantee a level playing field in games has proven to be a much thornier problem.
A perfectly-balanced aim assist — some genius calibration that puts controller players on equal footing with their mouse and keyboard peers, without undue advantage on either side — may not exist. As it stands now, sometimes aim assist feels too strong, so strong it looks like cheating; other times it won’t be strong enough, and it might feel like controller players don’t stand a chance against players using different inputs.
But perhaps more importantly, while aim assist has a central role in the discourse about competitive integrity in esports, it’s only the most visible problem of a professional scene that hasn’t yet agreed upon the methods or the degree to which game developers and tournament organizers should go in their efforts to achieve parity between players.
The aim gap is real
Working from a computer science lab in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, professor Regan Mandryk has extensively studied the subject of aim assist and the dynamics of playing with a controller or a mouse and keyboard.
“It’s almost like you’re comparing apples to oranges,” explained Mandryk, who, along with her colleagues Ian Stavness and Carl Gutwin, runs the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Saskatchewan. She concludes that “there’s no question,” the mouse is the faster and more accurate aiming device. “Research has shown this over and over, from the 1980s forward. This is not in contention. It is slower and less accurate to aim with a thumbstick. … The mouse has not been beat.”
Despite the scientific findings of Mandryk and her peers, interviews with high-caliber players showed that when it comes to which setup is better, the answer is, it depends.
“Keyboard and mouse players have the ability to really pinpoint their aim at longer distance,” said Dalton “Daltoosh” Hester, a popular “Apex Legends” streamer, caster and controller player who also got his start on the PlayStation 4. He believes some guns work better on keyboard-mouse, and some work better on controller. For example, the mouse’s ability to hit “flick” shots — to quickly and precisely select and hit a target in a flick-like motion — means that Hester finds it difficult to land hits with single-fire weapons with controller as easily as with a keyboard-mouse.
Given that disparity, some sort of adjustment seems necessary to balance the odds for disadvantaged players playing with a controller. Aim assist levels the field. Sometimes it’s as simple as locking onto targets with the press of a button, a feature in titles like “Grand Theft Auto.” There are more subtle and complex methods, too. Target gravity gives every target a little attractive force that drags crosshairs toward it; sticky targeting makes crosshairs literally stick to a target, making it harder to blow past where you’re trying to aim, slowing down as your weapon nears its mark.
Mandryk’s research shows that there are legitimate technical reasons to criticize aim assist in a competitive setting. At its most basic, aiming in shooters is as simple as moving crosshairs over a target and clicking. That action is governed by a widely-used model in human-computer interaction called Fitts’s law, which states that the time needed to move a cursor to a target is a function of the ratio between the distance to that target and the width of the target. While it may sound complex, Fitts’s law is fairly intuitive: Small things that are further from the reticle are more difficult to click; big things that are close are easier. Aim assist functions by automatically changing the variables in Fitts’s law to be more favorable to imprecise movements.
“There is a sweet spot range for aim assist,” Hester said, where controllers tend to outperform mouse and keyboard. “Anywhere from 10 feet in front of you, give or take five feet, is a really good range for controller players. That’s when aim assist is probably working at its best.” Controller players can thus dominate against mouse and keyboard in close-range scenarios with rapid-fire weapons, landing a far higher percentage of shots. Furthermore, some of the Interaction Lab’s research suggests that aim assist reduces the cognitive load on players, allowing them to devote more attention to other crucial tasks during gameplay, like positioning or listening for audio cues — giving them a secondary advantage over their peers on keyboard and mouse.
To that end, some keyboard-mouse players see aim assist as overly helpful to controller players, and a whole suite of reactive behaviors have become more common in pro “Apex” as the number of controller players on the competitive scene increases. Keyboard-mouse squads might go out of their way to avoid a pitched close-range battle if they know they’re up against a team of controller players, favoring their distance advantage with the point-and-click mouse. And in both “Apex” and “Fortnite,” some professionals have begun to use controller and keyboard-mouse at the same time, switching during the game depending on the situation to take advantage of the strengths of each input.
Fair or balanced?
Further muddying the waters around the debate is another around the nature of competitive games. Are they true competitions of skill, as would be the view of esports players and leagues, or are they merely entertainment products?
Those are questions that have commingled and conflicted with the rise of competitive gaming. And recently, the answers have favored the entertainment side, with many game companies leaning toward a “balanced” approach — in which players of varying skill levels can compete on similar footing — to a “fair” one, in which the only true variable between players is their individual skill levels. The balanced approach maximizes the enjoyment of a mass audience by giving lesser players a better chance to succeed.
Professor Mandryk and her colleagues at the Interaction Lab have studied this in relation to aim assist, too. They designed experiments in a mock-up game looking at whether the disclosure of aim assist in multiplayer games was harmful or not. Surprisingly, they found that there weren’t any negative effects from knowing that there was aim assist on for some players. Everyone enjoyed the game more, not less — even the players without aim assist. Because the matches were closer, the weaker players felt more competent and less tense. It was more fun for players to have a balanced game rather than a game with a perfectly level playing field. Still, Mandryk stressed, the conditions of the study took place in a more casual setting than competitive multiplayer, where perceptions of fairness might be radically different.
And indeed there has been a palpably different reaction on the competitive circuit. In ranked play, Hester is frequently challenged by controller skeptics, who are convinced that it takes less skill to play on controller than keyboard and mouse. “There’s plenty of pros every day that we kill, there’s plenty of people in chat every day that are always like ‘you won that fight because of aim assist’ or ‘we got controllered,’” said Hester.
The bitterness may come down to human nature. In their studies with aim assist, the Interaction Lab found that when players won, they thought it was because of their skills, and when they lost, they claimed the other person was getting help. These findings are consistent with self-serving attribution bias, “a well-known psychological bias in which people attribute success to themselves, and failure to external sources,” said Mandryk. “We’re really good at claiming success for ourselves, but when we fail it’s like — ‘That was a hacker. Aimbot.’”
Hester’s experiences seem to confirm those results. “If I said that mouse and keyboard players on ‘Apex’ respect controller players for their skill, I’d be lying,” Hester told The Post. “Controller is always brought up.”
Anti-controller trash talk is common, but it ignores that aim is just part of the equation for winning. Positioning, awareness, and team coordination are often just as or even more important than aim: The most mechanically gifted players often number among the best, but good aim is a basic prerequisite of high-level pro play, by no means a complete measure of skill. And endless arguments about aim fail to focus on the core issue: the radically differing notions of fairness between games.
Aiming at a solution
Fundamentally, the debate over aim assist can be boiled down to two drastically different visions of what makes for a healthy and successful esports scene.
Games like Riot’s “Valorant,” following the example set by its predecessor and rival “CS:GO,” solve the issue by having no aim assist. These games have a vision of competitive play that attempts to achieve parity at all costs. When an exploit was found in the “Valorant” map Haven, Riot took it out of its competitive rotation altogether while fixes were underway. In that purist view, a lack of support for controller players is a small price to pay for a fundamentally more competitive experience. By promising top-notch online performance and committing to strong notions of fair play, “Valorant” doesn’t cater to a casual audience. Riot is willing, at least to some extent, to alienate those players.
Battle royale games like “Fortnite,” “Call of Duty: Warzone” and “Apex Legends” are more focused on inclusion. All feature controller support with aim assist and are available on consoles. “Warzone” and “Fortnite” have crossplay, so that players on consoles can be matched against players on PC, and “Apex” plans to introduce crossplay soon as well. “Fortnite” in particular has doubled down on helping controller players aim, attempting to level the playing field with a strong aim assist feature that sometimes appears to work through walls and terrain.
The developers who make these games are more interested in making the game feel fair across different input methods and platforms than allowing keyboard-mouse players on high-end PCs to dominate. Ideally, it doesn’t matter if you’re on PlayStation, Xbox, or an old iPhone with a cracked screen; every player has the chance to put in the hours, get signed, and make millions of dollars like Fortnite World Cup champ Bugha. This view of fair play is also sensitive to the high entry cost of the PC market. Players don’t simply wake up one day and decide to use a controller to aim. A variety of factors influence the choice of input device, and one of the major ones is financial accessibility.
One way to establish competitive integrity in such titles would involve separating controller and keyboard-mouse players into separate divisions. “At a casual level the combination of mouse and keyboard and controller players in a single lobby isn’t a problem,” Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, a former CS:GO professional and one of the world’s most popular gamers, told The Post. “But when the stakes are high and you’re playing for money, there has to be competitive integrity and a level playing field. That means separate competitions for mouse and keyboard players and for controller players. This topic will remain controversial so long as mouse and keyboard and controller players are competing in the same competitions. When there will be separate competitions, this will be a nonissue.”
But competitive integrity isn’t so easy to achieve when one considers the additional wrinkles that require smoothing to achieve complete fairness. The move to online-only tournaments during coronavirus, for example, introduces the variable of latency due to Internet connection speeds. The speed and consistency of a connection to a match is the difference between life and death for pro gamers — and the difference between a big payday and a pittance. Beyond latency, drug abuse, cheating and outright match-fixing have all impacted high-profile esports leagues and events.
Addressing how technology unevenly impacts competitive play is not unique to esports. Motorsports has dealt with the problem of determining which technologies confer an unfair advantage for a long time. Driving aids like active suspension and traction control were banned in Formula One on the grounds that they helped the drivers too much. Since the initial ban, traction control was re-allowed for a few years — and then it was banned again. In competitive swimming, LZR swimsuits dominated at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but were then banned for giving an unfair advantage to the swimmers wearing them. Earlier this year, the world of elite running erupted in controversy when Nike Vaporfly shoes were allowed for the now-canceled Tokyo Olympics, equipment considered by many critics to be a form of “technological doping.”
“Unless you make all athletes wear exactly the same shoe from the same brand that’s scaled to their own body size and abilities, you’re never going to be able to isolate or immunize the sport away from the influence of technology,” the sports technologist Bryce Dyer said on “All Things Considered.” For shooters chasing pure competitive integrity, getting rid of aim-assisted controllers solves only one variable in an endless equation of comparative advantage. In that sense, when addressing the question of whether it’s best for a game to be fair or balanced, it’s far more difficult to establish fairness.
For companies like Epic and Respawn, a vision of pure competitive integrity is far less crucial than inclusivity — enjoyment of the game for the widest possible playerbase. Not allowing controller players at the highest levels of the game would risk alienating a huge segment of their audience. “Fortnite’s” competitive scene has been shaped in part by controller play and it is flourishing. Epic has little incentive to drastically shuffle the balance of the game to make it less enjoyable for a player using a controller. Aim assist is a blip on the radar of a company with much grander ambitions.
Since May’s dust-up, Epic has made some concessions to its hardcore playerbase, reducing the strength of aim assist on PC. But it’s not a priority. The most recent Fortnite Championship Series split up its brackets not by input device, but by platform, showing that Epic is more sensitive to the difference between console and PC than the vagaries of the aim assist debate. And in late August, the up-and-coming player who began this debacle, sF Roller, waded back in with another tweet: “#buffaimassist”
Ethan Davison is a freelance writer covering games, books, and culture. His work has recently appeared in Medium’s FFWD, The Outline, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter @eadavison_.