In every iteration of The International, the champion has come back to defend their title in some shape or form. Most years, the team has been invited; last year, Evil Geniuses, after breaking Valve’s recent roster rules, earned their spot through Open Qualifiers.
This year, though, there is no banner ready to defend. Wings Gaming, the winners of The International 6, no longer exists. Their roster has split, and the organization behind it is under scrutiny. While it’s common for teams to collapse mid-season, Wings’ situation was an exceptional case.
It’s extremely rare for Chinese Dota 2 teams to come out of nowhere. Teams under the esports player union Association of Chinese Esports, or ACE, have a relative monopoly on the scene. Very few have the chance to play at high levels along this organization’s teams, which include tier-one teams TI4 winners Newbee, TI2 winners Invictus Gaming, Vici Gaming and LGD Gaming, along with their sister rosters. Speculation exists that as recently as before TI5, ACE barred Wings from participating in events, despite the organization’s frequent appearance at international events.
That particular roster won the Chinese Open Qualifiers for The International 5, but they failed to make it to the main event. Wings dropped the full team in favor of the current one, which began to see even more success. They frequently popped up in events, and, most notably, won ESL One Manila in early 2016. In June, Wings finally appeared in their first in-house tier-one ACE circuit, NEA2016, confirming their presence in the highest levels of play.
Soon enough, they took the first spot of The International 6’s Chinese Qualifiers, posing them as a threat for the rest of the event.
By the time they found victory and picked up the Aegis of Champions, the players cranked out 40 out of 55 possible hero picks during the main event. This number was only rivaled only by their Grand Finals opponents Digital Chaos, which chose 43 unique heroes out of 95 possible hero picks. (The match count is dramatically different due to DC’s lower bracket run.)
When the event concluded and the next season picked up, Wings couldn’t find their stride quite in the same way. While the pride of winning could be a factor, as many suspect for many ex-TI champions after the event, it was still a bit upsetting for fans.
Then, in April of 2017, the entire roster announced their departure from the Wings organization. They explained that their manager couldn’t pay the team, apparently due to a failed League of Legends investment. This breach of contract forced the players’ hand and prompted their departure. These players reformed in time for the Kiev Major under the name Team Random. However, Random failed to perform in Kiev, dropping in the first round of the main event.
In May, information surfaced suggesting that the former Wings squad breached a second contract signed with ACE, regarding their departure from the parent org. No formal details of this contract have been shared, and even Wings’ players have remained mum on the topic. Leading to additional confusion and fan outrage, Wings’ players also believed they had been banned from the Chinese DOTA 2 circuit for life. This was later revealed to be a misunderstanding that was quickly resolved.
There were no tangible punishments from the association at this point. However, a chat transcript leaked in which managers from different ACE organizations agreed to not scrimmage with the ex-Wings teams and players. In the end, the vague nature of the situation, plus the perception of strong-arming by ACE, led Wings fans to express outrage towards the association.
Then, two of the team’s stars, Zhang "Faith_bian" Ruida and Zhang "y`" Yiping, showed up with EHOME managers at ACE’s doorstep to attempt to sign the two onto the roster. At this point, because the players were under observation by ACE until things were sorted out, ACE chose to ban the EHOME organization, causing outrage in support of the historic Chinese team. It was a bold move to ban the team, standard-bearer of Chinese Dota, which played in the first ever TI Finals. Fortunately for those picked up by EHOME, it’s only an organization ban, and all of the players can return to ACE’s jurisdiction under other organizations.
Valve, at the same time, has taken a hands-off approach for the most part. Still, when they invited EHOME to the China Main Qualifiers of this year’s TI, many saw it as a stance against ACE. Despite the breadth of experience on the team, EHOME couldn’t muster the necessary victory to return these players to Seattle, and the Wings Gaming dream faded.
Wings’ disappearance from the scene has been a disappointment to fans and pros alike. Reddit user /u/axecalibur found Evil Geniuses sporting the names of Wings players that shared their in-game role:
Many are also finding familiarity in gameplay, pointing at Virtus Pro’s incredible run at The Summit as a “homage.” The team didn’t play a single repeat hero until the finals, and people found parallels to Wings’ absolutely massive hero pool.
In the end, The International 7 is left without a defending champion, and three players are without a team. Meanwhile, this series of events has put the reputation of ACE under fire, though it’s a dilemma without a solution. Still, none of the fallout diminishes the journey that put Wings Gaming’s name on the Aegis of Champions, an achievement that can’t be dismantled.