The Shanghai Major marked an all-time low for Chinese Dota. Never before had the region failed to land a single team in the top half of the standings at a Valve event; in fact, almost every International and Major up to that date had half of the Top 8 teams representing China. China is the only geographic region to bring home the Aegis twice (the other three years going to Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and North America). But something was in the air at Shanghai. Teams were declining to play or practice, and their performance suffered because of it.
"Around [the Lunar] New Year teams were weakened. You could tell that teams were not playing or practicing as much," Xu "fy" Linsen recalled in an interview ahead of The Manila Major. "On Vici Gaming, we had trouble finding teams that would practice with us."
The historic defeat caused a tumult in the region. Every notable team made radical changes to their roster, sending all of the established groups (Vici Gaming, CDEC, EHOME, LGD, Invictus Gaming, Newbee) back to the starting line. It also meant China’s top teams had an opportunity to shake up the established order, challenge their long-time rivals and recapture the region's competitive honor.
But it wasn't the established orgs or their newly created superteams that first rose from the ashes to once again challenge the West. In the bedlam, two unexpected challengers answered the call: Wings Gaming and Vici Gaming Reborn.
After Shanghai: A stone in the rapids
Vici Gaming Reborn’s genesis was fy’s retirement from Vici Gaming's main roster. As VG brought on BurNIng, cty and rOtK to reconstitute their lineup, fy left to join the aspiring talent on Vici Gaming Potential, the org’s farm team. "After we struggled with Vici Gaming, we split apart and I wanted to play with some of the newer players," fy said of his desire to join a team with fresh passion. "They're younger and have a lot of potential and motivation."
The new squad added Leong "DDC" Fat-meng, a veteran of every Valve-sponsored event to date, and Tong "mikasa" Junjie, one of China's most experienced coaches who had helped get both CDEC and LGD in top form ahead of TI5.
Although DDC and fy were enough to draw the West's attention to VG.R, Wings were still running below the radar. They'd been stable since just after TI5, climbing steadily through the Chinese ranks thanks to a combination of hard work and luck. The shuffle disrupted every top Chinese team in the midst of the qualifiers for ESL One Manila, but Wings just kept playing the game they had practiced and perfected.
Instead of two internationally famous names in the finals for the Chinese qualifier, it was VG.R and Wings. Wings clutched the series 2-0 over fy’s new squad, which at that point was less than a week old.
Wings wouldn't outright win another series against VG.R until the end of May. Had Vici Gaming Reborn been given another week or two before the ESL One qualifiers, it's likely Wings would never have gotten the opportunity to attend the event in Manila; VG.R went on from that loss to dominate four straight weeks of H-Cup and then win the StarLadder i-League Invitational. "We made good use of the transfer window to make it to the LAN," said Wings’ Li "iceice" Peng in a later interview.
For Wings, the timing was perfect. Not only did they make it to ESL One Manila as China’s representative, they won the main event. Some saw it as a fluke, crediting Wings success on an accident of bracket placement — but with a 3-0 Grand Finals over Team Liquid, they at the very least raised some eyebrows in the West.
The experience set the stage for their ascent. "When we came into the tournament, we knew we didn't have a lot of LAN experience so we were a bit nervous from the beginning," Zhou "bLink" Yang said at ESL One Manila. "As we played each game we gained more confidence, and we played better and stayed united as a team."
After Manila: Control and chaos
VG.R and Wings wouldn't compete at the same LAN until The Manila Major, but between Shanghai and The International, they played each other more than any other two top Chinese teams. They split 11 series into 28 games, nearly always trading games.
But as time went on, Wings continued to grow, and the meta flowed in their favor. Their brutally fast execution and unpredictable drafting gave them an edge against Newbee and LGD, two of their top opponents in the region. VG.R, meanwhile, suffered from being too middle-of-the-road. While every other team in China had a unique approach to Dota, VG.R seemed to be a potpourri of ideas from the other teams. Although their individual execution with specific heroes or strategies may have been superior, Chinese opponents were already able to counter nearly everything VG.R brought to the table after practicing against other teams.
The strategies Wings employ against VG.R have an especially creative twist. Not only does the whole team, barring iceice, average over 3 KDA, but both Shadow and bLink average over 550 GPM. Wings keep a more even distribution of kill participation, largely due to a much faster collapse out of the laning phase and into aggression. When they take the advantage, they strip control away from the map in a way that's been difficult to do since the 6.82 comeback mechanics were added.
VG.R, on the other hand, average much lower GPMs and KDAs on their supports, concentrating resources more on their carry, END, who as a result has an average KDA approaching 6. The win conditions they set up aren’t tightly grouped in a specific phase of the game, but they tend to require better execution with fewer resources going to fy and DDC.
VG.R’s reliance on their most experienced members frames the rivalry between these teams. At the heart of their contest is a difference of philosophy: should new players make their own way? Or are they honed by the guidance of others? Does a new metagame spring from the creativity of inexperience, or the fusion of passion with wisdom? Is success the result of stability or recalibration?
Now these rivals struggle against each other as they look forward to The International. With LGD, Newbee and possibly even EHOME able to rekindle a legacy of success in the region, it's likely that only one of the upstart squads will be able to use The International to create an indelible claim of their own. But if either of these teams can earn a place in the Top 4 at The International, they will have proven that they deserve a place on the Chinese pantheon.
Ryan "Gorgon the Wonder Cow" Jurado writes about Dota 2 and freelances for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.