Image by Valve on Flickr
When they won TI6 nearly a year ago, it may have been presumptuous to declare Wings.Gaming the best Dota team of all time, but that’s the territory analysts Black and Winter were breaching during the closing minutes of the award ceremony.
“You can’t reach perfection, but they are so close,” Black said.
What does it mean to play perfect Dota? It wasn’t just that wings.gaming sliced through the main event competition, but it was the way they won. They were adaptable to the meta, flexible in strategy, and versatile in their hero pool. The nature of Dota is that its landscape shifts even when there isn’t a patch change, but by the players who shape it through their play. That’s easy to see over the course of a LAN, where underrated heroes can become that tournament’s top pick, and picking the top heroes could be running into a trap.
Wings.gaming was able to navigate this terrain on their road to the TI6 championship. They were the antithesis of the previous year’s top Chinese team, CDEC, who smashed the competition by excelling on a handful of heroes and one streamlined strategy. Wings.gaming wasn’t confined by the meta, and they won in particular for their ability to flout it altogether. They’ve picked Pudge and Techies and played Axe in the 1 position.
At the team’s peak, it seemed that they could’ve picked any hero and played any strategy. Pile on the team’s chemistry and their appetite for Dota, they had a solid foundation that appeared to be sustainable for the indefinite future. Finally, a TI champion who would not only maintain its roster but also had a fair chance of repeating. It all fell apart in a handful of months.
“We are not scared of any team. I think the most important thing is to adjust our own mentality and compete with ourselves.”
wings.gaming in an interview before ESL One Manila 2016
Peaking At The Right Moment
Before TI6, wings.gaming was largely inconsistent. They first broke into public consciousness at the World Cyber Arena 2015 with a victory over Team Secret, who was a juggernaut team with an all star roster. But then they floundered in Valve’s three Majors. They were eliminated during the Shanghai Major’s qualifiers, and their highest finish in the circuit was at the Manila Major 2016, at 13th-16th place. Their breakthrough performance, before TI6, was at ESL One Manila, where they qualified by running through China’s top teams, and then won the championship with a 3-0 finish over Team Liquid.
During ESL Manila 2016, Faith_bian was one of the first players to standardize Drums of Endurance as the Batrider’s first item on the professional stage.
They were largely a tier 2 team that had a few spotlight moments, but even then, both the community and pros saw their potential for greatness. It helped Wings.gaming’s case when they won The Summit 5 shortly before TI6. They weren’t under the radar anymore.
Then at TI6, fans tuning in can’t be blamed for thinking that wings.gaming was this good, all the time, because they weren’t that good even during the group stages just a few days before. They were one game away from being in the best-of-one of the loser’s bracket, after getting 2-0’d by both TNC and Na’Vi. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that Wing’s inconsistent finishes and their risk-taking tendencies was a recipe for failure to repeat a TI championship. But their TI6 performance was so transcendent that they made us believe they could.
In the ensuing months, wings.gaming exited Boston Major 2016 at the bottom of the bracket (in an unfavorable first round matchup against EG), failed to qualify at the Manila Masters, and dropped out during the group stages at Starladder i-league Season 3. The breaking point came with wings.gaming’s ouster from ACE, China’s Esports regulatory association, and ultimately the team’s disbandment.
Ever watched an anime where you face the final boss on the first 5 episodes and get absolutely demolished? #wingsgods
— Theeban Siva (@1437x) November 11, 2016
The Tenuous Grasp On Making History
The window for being great is narrow, and what’s often forgotten is that it’s influenced by vectors of chance, luck, and misfortune. Teams who have failed to repeat their TI performance are afflicted by the “TI curse,” a metaphorical force for the intangibles that makeup a championship. Wings.gaming was great at the right time and place, and they had a foundation that could’ve beaten the curse, from the diligence to combat post-TI idleness, the internal chemistry to be cohesive amidst egos, and the versatility to adapt to the meta that lies ahead.
Dota is still too young of a game to append “all time” to any team. Other sports are long enough to have eras and its dynastic teams usually have successful championship runs of at least two years in a row. No team has accomplished that yet in Dota. Few have come close, and wings.gaming had the best chance. They played close to perfection, but not for long enough.