Unleashing the Dragons
A winless season didn't stop Shanghai from becoming one of the biggest names in the Overwatch League
“You can feel it!” Overwatch League caster Wolf Schröder said. The Shanghai Dragons swarmed onto the capture point of Horizon Lunar Colony after holding off the Boston Uprising during the previous overtime defense. Kill after kill from the Dragons appeared in the kill feed as the noise of the crowd behind the casters rose to a crescendo. The excitement in the arena was palpable, electric. The winless Dragons were teetering on the edge of finally changing their own destiny.
“People were losing their minds,” said a Dragons Discord server administrator who goes by ‘Lemons’ of the moment. “It was a really good feeling – knowing that finally, we could start picking ourselves back up.”
Then, Shanghai finally squeezed off the trickling flow of Uprising players onto the point. The capture percentage climbed the final few points and “Shanghai Dragons Wins!” lit up the Blizzard Arena. One fan at the front of the audience ran out of his seat, fists pumping, while almost everyone else stood to cheer. After 42 losses, the team had finally won.
By any measure, the game where the Shanghai Dragons got their first win in the Overwatch League was unremarkable. It was an inconsequential game that didn’t even happen in the first week of the season. In a tragically ironic twist, the win happened in the second week, despite many Dragons fans travelling to Los Angeles for the season’s opening weekend to try and catch the team’s first win, according to Lemons. There were no big plays and no particularly interesting moments. And yet, for most Overwatch fans, the moment the Dragons won will live on in their memories.
Even now, whenever the Dragons come up, a comment from 2018 always comes to mind: “The Shanghai Dragons are everyone’s second favorite team.”
It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but in 2018, it was essentially true. The Dragons’ dismal inaugural season is the stuff of legends – an infamous 0-40 streak that broke a record for the longest losing streak in any professional league. But while it’s easy to think of their first season in terms of lacking wins, that doesn’t quite capture the full picture of what it was like to watch the Dragons back then.
Going into the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, there was moderate hope for the Shanghai Dragons. It seemed that Chinese Overwatch hadn’t quite caught up to the standard of its international peers yet, but the Dragons could have competed with the other worse teams in the league. They likely wouldn’t have been part of the upper echelon of teams duking it out for number one, but they could have had a memorable season brawling it out in a Denny’s parking lot with the bottom teams.
“As the only team representing a Chinese city in the inaugural season, and a team that was composed entirely of Chinese players, the Shanghai Dragons did mean a lot to Chinese Overwatch fans,” said longtime Chinese Overwatch caster Alan Gai. “The general atmosphere at the start was hope and excitement. But when they saw that the Dragons had big troubles, disappointment and even anger began to grow.”
As it turned out, even the most conservative expectations had been a little too high when it came to the Dragons. At first, their performance was embarrassing. The Dragons were meant to represent the oft-overlooked Chinese Overwatch scene, and they were falling flat on their faces week after week. Per Gai, no Chinese fans had expected a winless season – and yet, that reality got closer every match.
For western viewers without a personal attachment, it was amusing to see a team repeatedly fail so spectacularly. That made their western fanbase relatively small, at first. The lack of expectations fostered an unusual fan environment: one that wasn’t so concerned with wins and losses, but rather just glad to support the team they’d chosen.
“We all kind of banded around the fact that we like the Shanghai Dragons just for being the Shanghai Dragons, even if they’re not doing so well,” said Lemons. “There was just this charm about them that was different from all the other teams.”
Then, at some point during the OWL’s first season, something changed. All of a sudden, people who hadn’t been fans of the team were rooting for the Dragons to get their first win, regardless of who they were against. They became everyone’s “second favorite team.” Perhaps it was out of pity. Perhaps it was because rooting for a winless team is really fun. Or perhaps it was because the team took a chance on the league’s first female player.
Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon was the Overwatch League’s first female player, and her addition to the team brought together those marginalized by the esports community. Photo by Robert Paul for Blizzard EntertainmentKim “Geguri” Se-yeon first rose to prominence in 2016 after her high-sensitivity Zarya play invited accusations of cheating, which she dispelled. Since then, she’d been on a few other pro teams, but they’d never seen much success. Then the Shanghai Dragons announced that their midseason signings included bringing on some Korean players — including Geguri.
Nico Deyo, who was a fan of the Dragons in 2018 but has since stopped following the Overwatch League as closely, attributes the start of her fandom to Geguri’s signing.
“The real heart of the story for me was that they were the only team that took a chance on Geguri,” said Deyo. “I think her joining that team really heralded that fandom because everyone who has ever felt marginalized or off-put by the esports community felt like they were a relatable team. Underdogs are always relatable, because you want to root for people that feel like you. And the Dragons had a woman on their team.”
Certainly, the Dragons had been positioned as outsiders to the league since the very start. They were the only team representing a Chinese city, the only team with Chinese players on it and now they were the only team fielding a female player.
Geguri has gone on record before about not wanting to be seen as a symbol, but the sheer impact of her presence on that roster can’t be understated. To the fans, the Dragons became a ragtag group of underdogs, working hard to communicate across language barriers and get a win on the board.
It was remarkable. This team that had been the butt of the joke for so long was suddenly a unifying force. The Dragons’ quest for a first win was the first major storyline of the Overwatch League, and marked the first time that a team’s story was just as important as the team itself.
“The Dragons did lose a lot of fans during the first season,” said Gai. “But the fans who still cheered for the team — they didn’t treat it as just a team of Chinese players, or as a team whose job was just to win shiny trophies. They treated the team as a living thing, so it was more understandable that it would have ups and downs. And they had hope, especially in the second half of the 2018 season. They’re definitely the strongest fans I can imagine.”
While the Dragons have a completely different roster now from the inaugural season, they still stand on the shoulders of those who played before. Illustration courtesy of Blizzard EntertainmentToday, the Shanghai Dragons are one of the best teams in the league. Not a single player from that 2018 roster remains, as most of them were let go at the end of the inaugural season and replaced with Contenders Korea players who had proven their talent.
The team hasn’t been the league’s perpetual losers for a long, long time. To the current Dragons, those numbers — 0 and 40 — are probably more of a vague, faraway embarrassment, something to point to and say, “yeah, that wasn’t us.”
And yet, no matter how much the team changes, that record will always be them. The inaugural season’s roster wasn’t the one that got the Dragons’ first win after 42 failed attempts, but there’s a reason why the team’s efforts still meant so much. There’s a reason why everyone remembers that moment, even if they don’t remember anything about the actual match.
The Dragons’ story of failure, struggle and the hope for eventual redemption still persists, no matter how long it’s been. It’s important not to romanticize what was a genuinely difficult time for the players and staff of the 2018 Dragons, but it’s also important not to forget what made their story more than just a dismal failure — and how it made the Dragons into something more than what they were.
“The moment they won is still very important, since it marked the end of a pretty miserable history,” said Gai. ”I felt like it was a relief — not only for me, but for the players, the team and the fans. From that moment on, there was no 1-42. It was 1-2 — a brand new season, and a brand new future before us.”