It’s been three years since the Shanghai Dragons made their Overwatch League debut and racked up the longest losing streak in esports history. For a while, it was unclear whether they’d ever be able to shed that reputation. But if you watched them play now, you’d never believe they were the same team that once went 0-40.
Ever since their humiliating first season, the Dragons have been constantly changing, mixing and matching veteran presence and rookie talent until they finally found a true powerhouse of a roster. Last year, they led the league in the regular season and, with the exception of a stumble in season playoffs, they haven’t faltered since.
In 2021, the Dragons remained a force to be reckoned with. They had a slightly rocky start, thanks to the addition of new main tank Koo “Fate” Pan-seung. But, other than that, they’ve ruled over the East Division with an iron fist this season. They even proved, twice, that their dominance isn’t just regional by winning both the June Joust and Summer Showdown.
The only question mark surrounding the Dragons as they enter playoffs is their uncharacteristic Countdown Cup performance, where they went 2-2 and failed to qualify to the tournament for the first time all season. In any other situation, a mostly-dominant team falling off at the tail end of the regular season might be a bad sign. After all, the New York Excelsior in 2018 and the Vancouver Titans in 2019 both met with unfortunate ends after similar circumstances. But the Dragons have proven, time and time again, that they’re a cut above the rest.
“During the Countdown Cup we were resting and also playing matches, since we’ve been pretty tired all season,” head coach Moon “Moon” Byung-chul said. “Everyone was taking it easier in comparison to the rest of the season. But now everyone is filled with the motivation to win so we’ve been practicing much more and more efficiently too. Regardless of what composition or style the other teams bring, we’re well-prepared and are ready to counter it.”
Preparedness will be important going into playoffs, where the uncertain meta and packed schedule means the most robust and well-rounded team will be the one that prevails. Luckily for the Dragons, they fit that description to a T. At their best, they have a fluid, adaptable playstyle that morphs to counter any team that tries to challenge them. They’re capable of overwhelming a defensive team just as easily as they can absorb the impact of an aggressive one.
The team’s star power isn’t lacking either, with every player considered among the very best in their role. The sheer impressiveness of the Dragons’ roster has lost some of its shine by now, but it bears repeating that this is a roster that could be considered an all-time great. There’s not a single weak link here, no blind spot that might be exploited. It’s hard to overstate just how rare that is.
What really elevates them above their opponents, though, is their mentality and focus. In many situations the Dragons have been in, other teams might crumble. With them, however, there’s always a chance to come back. They’ve shown they can rapidly learn and adapt through the course of a series, allowing them to snatch victory from even the most dire of situations.
“We try not to think about the maps that we’ve lost,” Moon said. “We encourage the players to focus on the upcoming maps, not the ones that have already happened. And we always tell them, ‘you can do it.'”
A first-round grudge match
The Dragons’ decision to rest during the Countdown Cup may be a direct response to what happened in 2020. By the time playoffs rolled around, there was a distinct sense that the Dragons were somewhat fatigued and not playing to the high standard they’d set for themselves. As a result, they suffered two close losses to the San Francisco Shock and Seoul Dynasty to finish third overall.
This year the Dragons are determined for things to be different — starting with taking out the teams that defeated them last year. Moon took everyone by surprise during the playoffs bracket selection when he chose the Shock as the Dragons’ first-round opponent. The Shock haven’t looked nearly as strong as in previous years, but selecting the two-time league champion was still an unprecedented decision. Moon confirmed that yes, it was partially motivated by the desire for a revenge match, but not entirely.
“All things considered, the positives of picking Shock outweighed the negatives,” said Moon. “There’s not much about them to be scared of, but they’re very experienced, so when facing a team with so much experience we have to prepare well. We also lost against them last year, so managing the team’s mentality will be important. But they’re also the sixth seed, so we’re not that worried. Our main goal is to win the championship, and to do that, we need to win all our matches, so which teams we face doesn’t really matter to us.”
A league title is the only thing the Dragons have left to claim. According to the official Overwatch League Pick’ems, 36.9% of participants think that the Dragons will be the 2021 champions. It goes to show that, for them, winning isn’t just a goal. It’s an expectation. Anything less will be a disappointment.
Twice this season they’ve proven themselves the undisputed best team in the world, and they’ll be chasing that standard in playoffs, too. There’s no such thing as “good enough” for the Dragons. They’re here for the whole thing.