In the deafening applause of the crowd, with adrenaline rushing through their veins, Wings stepped out of their booth victorious. They had done it. They had won The International in a year where Dota 2 had an all-time high in competitive parity. As they lifted up the Aegis to bask in their victory, Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner asked them what it meant to have won the biggest tournament of the year.
They answered that it was vindication for a year long struggle. A journey that few had followed. Among all of the teams at TI6, their story was perhaps one of the strangest of any team heading into the tournament. Most people know only one thing about Wings: Their gameplay, which is fantastic. It is beautiful, explosive, diverse, compelling. They are willing to play using any strategy with any hero, with any skill build, with any items, and it all fits perfectly with their vision that only they can see. There has almost never been a team like it. Chan “WinteR” Litt Binn, Dota 2 player and analyst has called them the best team he has ever seen.
That is all true. That’s all you need to understand Wings, as Wings’ play is the apex of who they are as players: The ultimate expression of their hard work and talent. But what created this Dota? What did they have to do, what did they have to learn to reach this next level? When people watched the TI6 finals, many called Digital Chaos the team of rejects and Wings a Chinese juggernaut. They were young prodigies who understood Dota on a different level from their peers. In a sense that is true. They are all hard working, dedicated and talented. But if you look at their histories, at their careers, at the struggles they faced to get here, they were also a team of rejects. But instead of banding together out of happenstance at the last minute, they banded together to fight the world.
Wings is a team made up of rookies, incredibly rare in a Chinese Dota 2 scene in which teams build around veterans or a mix of veterans and pubstars. Whether Wings formed because they believed in themselves or because no one wanted them is up for debate. The core of the team — Zhang “Innocence” Yiping, Zhou “bLink” Yang and Zhang “Faith_bian” Ruida — was all originally from Speed Gaming. Those three have been the core lineup since 2014 and for the first year had nothing to show for it. The most notable thing any of them did was substituting for Team DK.
The last two members to eventually join Wings were Chu “shadow” Zeyu and Li “iceice” Peng. Shadow has had no notable results before joining Wings and iceice was a well-known pubstar who played for Big God at the Dota 2 Championships, but he was still unable to find a team for six months until he met Innocence. In an AMA on his stream, Zhang “xiao8“ Ning said iceice was not cut out to be a pro player and he was careless, lazy and often distracted. Danche the Chinese caster called Wings a Tier 2 backup team.
Every one of them was raw talent. None of them except iceice had any experience on the main stage and in iceice’s case, he was playing along legends. But they had the hunger and the drive to do anything it took to win. And on Aug. 25, 2015, they banded together to form Wings Gaming.
Many people say they are willing to do anything to become the best. Wings never said anything; they lived it. No amount of sacrifice or effort was too great a hurdle. They lived together and had scheduled practice for six days of the week. The constant practice has put a strain on them physically. bLink has hand problems. Shadow has a slipped disc that causes him pain.
“When I sit for extended periods of time it hurts very badly. But I can only grit my teeth and endure the pain,” Shadow told Chinese press in April. “Apparently going for a surgery would require me to rest for three months. How do I find that kind of time now?”
Their dedication has also put a strain on their love lives, as three out of the five of them are in romantic relationships. Two of their girlfriends live far away, making it difficult to spend time together.
The players also had to make a financial sacrifice. Streaming in China is extremely lucrative, with incomes going up into the millions. But Wings has rejected multiple streaming deals because that would cut down practice time, which is in their eyes untenable. Perhaps the biggest sacrifice they’ve made has been pride. They refused to bow to ACE and pay the membership fees, which meant they were barred from all local Chinese tournaments. As time went on, they finally relented and killed their own ego to join a league and org that had mocked them as inferiors, taken their money and then praised itself for growing new Chinese talent.
Even Wings’ one early success was tainted. Its debut at World Cyber Arena 2015 came with accusations of cheating. The claims were never definitive but still gave them a bad reputation in China and internationally, and many questioned their skill and ethics. Yet they soldiered on, day by day, week by week, month by month and at ESL One Manila finally tasted victory. After that performance, many were hopeful the success would continue.
Those hopes dashed, as at the Manila Major they bombed out of the groups, losing to DC twice in best-of-threes and to compLexity in a best-of-one. That failure was requisite for them to evolve. Wings were a team with no experience, with a leader just 18 years old. It had to taste the bitterness of defeat that day to reach victory tomorrow. And in the run up to TI6, they did just that with a second place finish at Nanyang 2 and a win at The Summit 5 — in which it defeated OG and Liquid to get first place.
The Summit 5 was the prologue. No one had any idea what Wings was doing. There was an almost mad genius to it that no one could ascertain. In the finals of that tournament, they drafted a last pick Spiritbreaker for Faith_bian, and the couch called it a disastrous mistake. It proved correct as Faith_Bian easily lost lane, yet as the game unfolded they watched as the master plan unfold. Faith_bian and Wings quickly rallied back and beat OG in an astonishing game, and those calling the game could only watch in wonder at the team they were witnessing.
There has almost never been any team like this. Almost. Wings are the neo-DK of 2014: The dream team fans still wax poetic about to this day as one of the great and most entertaining lineups. It was a team full of superstars that took over lane and fought across the entire map, and each player individually won every skirmish on their own. They played incredibly loose and were willing to draft and do anything. It was in a sense the idealized version of how people envisioned Dota 2.
And Wings had not only reached that vision, but surpassed it. In Innocence’s words, “Dota2 becomes stale if you play the same heroes over and over.”
In a sense, he has Icefrog’s very spirit in his drafting. He is willing to go farther and break all the standard rules of engagement for the pure thrill of it. And every player on his team follows suit. They are neo-DK except they have crazier drafts, better plays, stranger itemization and skill builds. But it is all backed up by the iron will of Innocence and his players’ complete faith in his vision and leadership. They not only broke convention in the game, but they broke it out of the game, too, as they created an entire rookie team — which goes against conventional wisdom. They refused the millions of dollars and financial security for only the potential to be that much better than their opponents.
This neo-DK was unleashed at TI6. In a scene where people say narrative is king. Where fans most easily connect to a story, a human, a face, Wings won over the crowd purely through gameplay — because their gameplay mirrored their entire existence. No player or team can play that many heroes without hours of dedication and sacrifice. The way they play breaks the game just like the way they live breaks the rules of the modern Chinese Dota scene.
And so it was even more fitting when Wings’ final two opponents in TI6 were Evil Geniuses and DC. EG was the ultimate form of the previous age before Wings. The team was refined, efficient, risk-averse. They minimized risk, maximized gain and executed perfectly. Wings defeated them on every level in the drafts, on both a strategic level and in execution. DC was their final opponent and in many ways a Western version of themselves.
DC was a team comprised of five players from five different countries. DC was formed through rejects and players who were scrambling to try to find a team so they could compete at TI. Their captain was a player who didn’t even want to take it, but had no choice. In a twist of fate, this forced role would make Rasmus “MiSeRy” Filipsen the perfect captain. He was one of the few players who had experience playing in every role, and his drafting showed it, as he continually picked heroes that could work in multiple roles to trick opponents while maximizing his players’ potential.
And for Wings, this was the final test: A battle against the team that had made them taste humiliation and defeat at the Manila Major. A battle against a team that was a bunch of rejects just like them. A battle to see how far they had come and to see if they would succumb to the pressure once again. They never did. And though they lost Game 1, they came roaring back with the own brand of Dota. The final game ended with a comeback victory by Wings. After being down in the game, shadow had to carry the team hard on Anti-mage. It was a perfect end. This had all started with the Wings players watching Burning from behind and now it ends with shadow filling the role of Burning, and Wings taking on the mantle as the world’s best team.
And as they lifted that Aegis above their heads, it was vindication of all of their struggles they had gone through. In order to achieve greatness, you must do whatever is asked of you. When the players suffered through physical injuries, they bore it and gritted their teeth. When asked to sacrifice romantic relationships, they were forced to minimize their time with loved ones. When asked to play hours upon hours for months, they sat down and did it. When forced to sacrifice their pride to an organization for a chance to improve themselves, they did. When asked to give up streaming and potential millions of dollars, they gave it up. When accused as cheaters or mocked as low-level players, they took it and kept on going. And in that pain — in that sacrifice — they were forged together, a greater sum together than they had been apart. They had the faith to bet it all on a complete rookie captain in Innocence to lead them to victory just as Innocence had complete faith in them to do whatever it took to get to the top.
That was how the Wings took flight.
Photos courtesy of Valve.