On the morning of June 26, a number of Dota 2 teams gathered in the cavernous reception hall of the Longxi International Hotel in Wuxi, China, for the The International 6 China Qualifier. They were explicitly told to arrive early for the 9:30 a.m. opening ceremony.
Only one team did as instructed, making it by 9 a.m.: Wings Gaming.
"We shouldn't have come early," said its manager, Zaizai, looking on restlessly as he and his players waited and waited. Indeed, Wings was making what in Dota circles might be considered a rookie mistake of sorts: The squad did as it was told, and ended up having to wait for others who did not.
Some vets can play it slick because they've been around the block and know better. Others, already burdened by an endless parade of qualifiers and online tournaments, recognize that the tournaments they attend often need them more than the other way around. Not Wings. Young and still untouched by fame, fortune and burnout, its biggest accomplishments likely still lie ahead; as the organization fights to establish itself, for the moment it aims to follow the rules.
One team battling for a TI6 spot through the China Qualifier didn't even bring its uniforms for the official photo shoot, which had to be rescheduled for the following day. Someone eventually delivered them by driving a few hours from the team's training base in Shanghai to neighboring Jiangsu Province, where the idyllic, wealthy little town of Huaxi (known as one of China's model socialist villages) and its colossal central hotel, the LAN site, is located.
The team was not Wings, whose uniforms are little more than t-shirts with Wings lettered across. Very homely compared to the crisp, sponsored designs that other Chinese teams seem to bring afresh to each LAN. Every other team has a home base in the high-rent coastal metropolis of Shanghai. Not Wings, who are still in faraway, foggy Chongqing; had it left the uniforms at base, it might've been easier to find a shop to make new ones than fly them in from nearly a thousand miles away.
Most household-name Chinese teams revolve around or are captained by an accomplished old guard, bringing in just enough new blood from the nation's teeming youth and academy squads to stay elite. Mid players are usually a team's youngest in and outside China, singularly focused, brazen and mechanically brilliant, as the role is perhaps more dependent on individual skill than any other position. But fail to perform, and a player can be just a "family issue" away from banishment back to the meat grinder, his youthful inexperience deemed not ready for bright lights and veteran expectations.
Not so for Wings. Its mid, Zhou "bLink" Yang, is by far its oldest player at 24 years old. Meanwhile, the team is captained by its youngest player, Zhang "Y." Liping (also known as Innocence), who at 18 still needs his parents to sign off on his visa and travel applications. The two first teamed together two years ago after passing tryouts for Speed Gaming International along with offlaner Zhang "Faith_bian" Ruida; these three players eventually became the backbone of a Wings squad that came together in its current form at the end of last summer.
Some other Chinese teams have a safe, formulaic style and draft philosophy which stems from their captains' preferences for stability and the ability to control as many variables as possible. Not Wings. Three of its players are still audacious teenagers, including Captain Y, whose willingness to experiment and pick just about anything is a breath of fresh air in a sometimes overly stale region. Through its ten-game group stage run at the TI6 Qualifier, Wings used core combinations ranging from Weaver and Juggernaut to Medusa and Void, Dragon Knight and Luna, Drow and Windranger, Huskar and Mirana, and Timbersaw and Anti-Mage. At Nanyang, Wings showed that even Pudge is part of an arsenal that can totally disregard the meta at a moment's notice.
Some Chinese teams' star players have achieved so much and been through it all so many times that they've earned lasting acclaim and financial security. A player who has truly made it in China can get paid much more to stream than from team salaries and domestic tournament payouts. But streaming generally requires lengthy hours to fulfill contracts, and its focus on providing entertainment to viewers can sometimes run at odds with individual and team improvement. Some Chinese streamers have even held off practicing for Dota's crown jewel event, The International. Many Chinese teams face tougher and tougher balancing acts between incentives for player and franchise. Not Wings. It doesn't have lucrative streaming deals yet and, for the time being, doesn't stream at all. It's still climbing the mountain, looking to prove itself, and hungering for more experience.
Many of the throngs that came to Huaxi bearing signs and chanting for Vici Gaming's BurNIng Legion didn't even stay for Wings' matches, or its final triumph in the qualifier. There are old legends who earned a special place in the hearts of fans long ago, like guest commentator, streamer, and Dota legend Gong "ZSMJ" Jian, who peaked during the Dota 1 era. Not so for Wings. Some of these same rabid fans of Chinese Dota, shuttling daily to Huaxi through the rain because they were unable to book hotel rooms, couldn't yet match names and faces of the current Wings roster. Even in victory as the first to qualify for TI, no one mobbed the players as they did their old gods. No one stayed around to send them off the way they did Luo "Ferrari_430" Feichi and others, and no one called to them by their nicknames.
As June drew to a close and the dust settled on the qualifiers for the sixth International, most Chinese players had already gone home, some having written their final professional chapters, others with Seattle dreams postponed for another year. Not Wings.