Team Spotlight: Wings Gaming
In the history of Dota 2, no TI winning team has ever been as mercurial as Wings Gaming. 2016 was the year the Chinese team redefined how competitive Dota 2 was played. They were crowned world champions at Valve’s The International, winning $9.1 million – a world record at the time. Their style was revolutionary, their drafts unpredictable and then suddenly… they were gone.
Wings Gaming did not boast any veteran players, nor was it a well-established organization. In fact, when Zhang “Y/Innocence” Yiping captained the team to the world title in Seattle, he had only just turned 18 five days earlier. Wings were hungry, and in the space of one season became the team that everyone wanted to beat, but nobody knew how.
The dawn of Wings Gaming
The backbone of the TI6 winning roster was Midlaner Zhou “bLInk” Yang, Offlaner Zhang “Faith_bian” Rui Da and Support Zhang “Y/Innocence” YiPing. All three got their first break at Speed Gaming.CN in early 2014, and all three were part of Wings Gaming’s first inaugural roster when the organization was formed in the summer of 2014.
Wings’ start was far from explosive, and in the first four months the team managed winnings of just $5,666. By the end of December 2014, Faith_Bian and Innocence had left the team, and instead of finding a new home, went back to the pubstar lifestyle that had gotten them noticed in the first place. Wings Gaming and BlinK soldiered on without them, but a joint last place finish at the $3 million Dota 2 Asia Championships (DAC) in February 2015 would be their best offline result in the season.
It was not until the start of the 2015-2016 season that the now iconic roster was formed. Post-TI5 Wings Gaming refreshed their entire line-up with BlinK the only survivor. Faith_Bian and Innocence were convinced to return to competition, and the trio were joined by two new faces; Iceice and Shadow.
Li “iceice” Peng was a widely respected pubstar, who had been handpicked by retired TI4 winner Zhang “XIao8” Ning to play in his casual team, Big God, at DAC2015. Iceice had no prior competitive experience, but Big God pulled off an outrageous top four finish at the event, placing ahead of heavy weights such as Invictus Gaming, Cloud9 and LGD Gaming.
After his cameo, iceice returned to the pub scene, but when Wings Gaming began to assemble their new roster in August 2015, he joined as the team’s new support. The final piece of the puzzle was carry player Chu “shadow” Zeyu, who had won a total of just $80 prior to becoming Wings’ position 1.
On paper, the Wings Gaming roster that headed into the 2015-2016 season was not exceptional. None of the players had ever won an offline tournament, nor had they ever competed outside China. However, within the space of a year they were crowned world champions. There were early signs that Wings Gaming were a threat, but their early strong performances were often disregarded as flukes.
WCA – the first signs of potential
In December 2015, after four months of duking it out in the lower tiers of the Chinese domestic scene, Wings flew to Yinchuan, China, for the World Cyber Arena (WCA). The format for WCA qualification had been bizarre, with global qualifiers held six months before the event was scheduled to take place. For Wings, however, the format was perfect. One slot of the 16 at WCA was given to the winners of a Chinese Open Qualifier reserved for up and coming teams, and Wings had won it in style.
WCA2015 was the first time Wings faced foreign opposition, and for many fans outside of China it was the first time they had ever heard of the team. Wings Gaming were drawn into group A with Team Empire, Fnatic and Team Secret. Team Secret had recently finished runners-up at the $3 million Frankfurt Major, while Team Empire had placed second at DreamLeague Season 4. Wings Gaming were expected to fight for bottom with Fnatic but then the unexpected happened. In the opening match of the tournament on stage in front of a live crowd, Wings Gaming took down Team Secret 2-0. The score made headlines, but the overlying narrative was that Secret had lost because they were not treating it like a serious tournament.
Wings followed up the win over Secret with draws against Fnatic and Team Empire to finish top of their group. They went on to reach top four, losing 3-0 to Team Liquid in the 3rd place decider match. Their performance was overshadowed, however, by the horrific player conditions at the tournament, which became the hot topic. WCA was labelled a joke and Wings’ remarkable run at their first LAN event was unfortunately buried under the horror stories.
A knack for sporadic brilliance
Historically, every TI winning team up until that point had put together a run of good form in the months leading up to Valve’s flagship event. TI2 Invictus Gaming, TI3 Alliance, TI4 Newbee and TI5 Evil Geniuses were all considered real contenders long before they arrived in Seattle. In stark contrast, Wings Gaming’s results were sporadic right up until just weeks before The International 2016.
In January 2016, after their impressive LAN debut at WCA, Wings flew to Minsk for the Starladder i-League StarSeries Season 1. It would be their first competition abroad and a chance to make up for not qualifying for Valve’s Shanghai Major the following month. Once again, they upset the expected balance of power on LAN. While they did not make it out of the group stage, they did beat Team Liquid and Vega Squadron, the two teams to make it to the playoffs.
In Minsk, Wings had begun to forge their reputation for the unpredictable, and their BO1 victory over Team Liquid had been a demolition. Wings toppled Liquid in 27 minutes, without losing a single hero in the second half of the match. The final scoreline was 38-7, and versus Vega Squadron it was much the same story. While Wings may not have reached the playoffs, they definitely put to bed doubts that their wins at WCA had been a fluke.
Thrilla in Manila; Wings take gold
After three months of keeping a low profile in domestic tournaments, Wings resurfaced on the international scene at the $250,000 ESL One Manila event in April 2016. The eight-team event featured both Shanghai Major Grand Finalists, winners Team Secret and runners-up Team Liquid, as well as a piping hot Fnatic. The competition was fierce, but ESL One Manila was where Wings earned the respect and admiration of the scene for their creativity.
After finishing second in the group stage beating Team Liquid, Wings faced Fnatic in the semi finals. Fnatic were, without a doubt, the strongest team in SEA at the time, and the month prior had won 24 of their 26 matches, a 92% win average. Despite Fnatic’s form, Wings came back from 1-0 down to claim a 2-1 victory in just 50 minutes, eliminating their adversity from the tournament.
The comeback led to a BO5 showdown with Team Liquid, a match which Wings dominated in style. Six months earlier, Team Liquid had overpowered them 3-0 at WCA2015, but the tables had turned and Wings returned the favor with a 3-0 victory in Manila. What made their victory even more impressive was the manner in which they won. In the three games, Wings picked 13 different heroes, with only Bounty Hunter and Batrider picked more than once. Their off-meta picks such as carry Venomancer for Shadow and support Keeper of the Light for iceice also threw off the Shanghai Major runners-up. Liquid were outdrafted and outplayed, and the world watched Wings being ushered into the tier 1 club.
“Tier 1” but no direct invite to TI6
While Wings’ first place in the Philippines was a landmark victory, it did not take away from the fact they had not performed well on Valve’s Major Championship Circuit. The 2015-2016 season featured three $3 million Majors taking place in Frankfurt, Shanghai and Manila. The goal of the Majors was to create focal points in the season and to help Valve decide invites for TI. Wings did not qualify for the Frankfurt or Shanghai Majors, and while they did later attend the Manila Major, they finished joint last.
Outside of 1st place at ESL One Manila, Wings had no other notable results when it came time for Valve to issue their six direct invites for The International 2016 in June. If they were going to reach TI6 they were going to need to qualify. For TI6 Valve cut direct invites down from ten to just six, resulting in a far more stacked Chinese Regional Qualifier than in previous years. Invictus Gaming had TI2 winner Luo “Ferrari_430” Feichi as their mid, Vici Gaming Reborn had support wizard and TI4 runner-up Xu “Fy” Linsen, while Vici Gaming were fielding TI4 silver medalists Liu “Sylar” Jiajun and Bai “rOtk” Fan.
In terms of experience, Wings were out of their depth, but in terms of hunger and strategy they were ahead of the competition. Despite a rough month results wise, they finished top of the TI6 Chinese Regional Qualifiers group stage in late June, securing themselves 1st seed and a direct invite to The International 2016.
Matumbaman: “I think Wings just broke Dota”
Wings Gaming attended three LANs in the run-up to TI6, but it was their performance at the Summit 5 that blew fans away. The Summit is organised by NA studio BeyondtheSummit, and similar to HomeStory Cup in Starcraft, focuses on offering fans a more intimate experience.
The Summit 5 was held inside the BTS house and players were encouraged to join the chill casting couch during their downtime. For Wings Gaming’s final showdown with quadruple Valve Major winner OG in the Grand Finals, fans got to hear professional players equally baffled and amazed by Wings’ approach to the game.
In the Grand Finals of the Summit 5, Wings Gaming won 3-1, and used 20 different heroes across four matches. Not a single hero was picked more than once, and many of their picks went against the meta.
Typically in a top tier tournament, a hero meta evolves during the early stages of the event which is then carried through. Heroes deemed meta are contested over, but Wings’ didn’t care what heroes were meta, they just cared what heroes could do the job. This approach made them incredibly difficult to draft against and also incredibly entertaining to watch. Summit 5 showcased the intricate depth of game knowledge of captain Innocence, and the phenomenal versatility of his players, who seemed to be able to play any hero they were given.
“I honestly think that there isn’t much skill difference in the teams that competed at The Summit,” said Innocence post-Summit 5. “They are all very strong teams and we only won because we happened to adjust our condition and our strategies to the meta the best. Players’ condition and mentality during the matches themselves are very important factors in DotA.”
Wings’ did not follow trends, they set them, and their success with unconventional picks at Summit 5 cemented their reputation as mavericks of the game. After Wings’ coup de grace on OG, Team Liquid’s Matumbaman said on cast: “I think Wings just broke Dota”; a line which perfectly illustrated just how outside the box the Chinese team’s approach was.
Over the course of the Summit 5, Wings played a total of 12 matches and picked 59 different heroes, including extremely unpopular heroes such as safelane Warlock and a roaming Spirit Breaker for offlaner Faith_Bian. Wings had found their rhythm and a month later arrived in Seattle for The International 2016.
Wings become World Champions
Wings arrived at TI6 as one of the fan favorites worldwide, which was unusual for a Chinese team. Historically, Chinese Dota, particularly at TI, had been about farming efficiency and reducing the margin for error by making safer choices. Wings was not about that life, and this made them endearing to fans outside China. Wings took risks, played aggressively and often managed to still win games after losing the laning stage.
At TI6 Wings did not change their attitude, they did not play it safe, but still went on a warpath in the playoffs defeating direct invites OG, MVP Phoenix, and TI5 winners Evil Geniuses to reach the Grand Finals to face Digital Chaos. Digital Chaos came into the Grand Finals having eliminated five teams in the lower-bracket including LGD Gaming and Evil Geniuses. They started strong taking an unexpected 1-0 lead against Wings, with Omar “W33haa” Aliwi’s mid Skywrath Mage decimating the Chinese hopefuls.
At TI5, China’s Open Qualifier winner CDEC had gone all the way to the Grand Finals only to fall to pieces in a 3-1 defeat to Evil Geniuses. CDEC’s inability to contest EG was generally perceived as an embarrassing loss by Chinese fans, but Wings were not done yet. In Game 2 Digital Chaos “imploded” in the words of caster Ben “Merlini” Wu under the mesmerizing team play of Wings. The synergy between Shadow’s Faceless Void and Blink’s Invoker left Digital Chaos powerless to stop them, and smiles turned to grimaces.
Game 3 was all about Shadow, who in a Grand Finals of an International managed to secure 20 kills while suffering 0 deaths on Faceless Void. Despite the destruction, Digital Chaos did not wave the white flag until 45 minutes in, with the scoreline 49-24 in Wings’ favour.
In the fourth and final game, DC were all in on David “Moo” Hull’s Timbersaw after taking an early lead. By 25 minutes, Wings were on the ropes and 22-9 down as DC looked to push tier 3’s, but the tides were about to change. In the space of 10 minutes Wings retaliated creating a landslide 23K net worth swing in their favor. The crowd roared as the Chinese roster hammered the final nails into DC’s coffin to take the Grand Finals 3-1 and win themselves a record-breaking $9.1 million.
Wings are clipped and disappear
Wings’ victory at TI6 was the first time a qualifier team had won the title. The winners of all previous five Internationals had all been direct invites, and TI2 to TI5’s winners had dominated the scene for a majority of the season leading up to their TI. Wings were by far the least experienced TI winner, and remain the last Chinese team to ever win TI.
Wings did not conform to established methods and, unlike other teams, were regarded as a cohesive unit rather than a couple of star players and their supporting cast. They seemed humble, hardworking and passionate about Dota 2, so many fans were expecting their reign to continue post-TI6 but it was not to be.
Wings Gaming peaked at TI6, and in the aftermath slowly disappeared from the top flight, until their emphatic victory in Seattle was nothing more than a beautiful memory. The scene was changing, and the rise of Newbee, Virtus.pro and a new and improved Team Liquid with Amer “Miracle” Al-Barkawi meant the competition was a lot tougher.
More money more problems
In the aftermath of TI6, the players of Wings also became involved in money problems with their management. The owner of Wings Gaming ended up taking 20% of their winnings from TI6, a much higher percentage than the customary 5-10%. The owner decided to spend the money and invest his time to expand the organization to other games, but his investments did not work out. As a result, in early 2017 the five TI winning players found themselves owed two months’ salary, and tried to end their contracts with the organization.
A long drama ensued which ended up muddying the reputation of Wings Gaming and the Association of Chinese Esports (ACE). Following the drama, the roster competed under the name Team Random at the Kiev Major in April 2017, before Innocence and Faith_Bian moved to EHOME. The duo have enjoyed success on the Dota Pro Circuit with EHOME over the last few years, but their former TI6 winning team-mates Blink, Iceice and Shadow sadly never found a place to truly call home.
Wings Gaming’s disappearance from the scene was a disappointment to fans and professionals alike. However, they still remain one of the most entertaining teams to ever grace Dota 2. Two years after their disband in 2019 the Wings Gaming roster came together for one last ride in a ARDM showmatch at the Chongqing Major against TI7 winners Team Liquid, much to the delight of fans worldwide. The former Wings roster may be gone, but they will never be forgotten.