It’s been a year since the Overwatch League’s first season came to an explosive end. The London Spitfire had defeated Pacific Champions Los Angeles Valiant, and the Philadelphia Fusion shocked the world by defeating the New York Excelsior, who had been expected to take the first season’s championship. In the end, the London Spitfire took the crown and claimed their spot as inaugural champions.
Then, there were the Shanghai Dragons, who sat on the outskirts as the worst team in the League with a 0-40 record.
What a difference a year can make.
The Shanghai Dragons are now on top of the world, having just claimed the Stage 3 championship in season two of the Overwatch League. The Dragons look like they could be leading the new standard of play as the League heads into Stage 4, and are likely contenders for the seasonal championship. Think about that: 2018’s worst team, who racked up a record-breaking 0-40 losing streak, are now in contention for winning an Overwatch League grand finals.
This kind of turnaround is almost unheard of in any kind of competition, let alone esports. How could the worst team become the best in such a short amount of time? In order to explain that, we need to start at the beginning.
The Shanghai Dragons entered the Overwatch League’s inaugural season as one of the 12 participating teams. The first iteration of their roster was a mixed bag of Chinese players that inspired doubt in fans and analysts.
The Dragons debuted on Jan. 10, 2018, against the Los Angeles Gladiators, and lost 0-4. This trend would continue throughout the first stage, so much that the Dragons not only never won a match, but they only managed to win six individual maps out of the 42 maps played. That’s a 14.28 percent map win record.
With stats that rough, something had to change.
On Feb. 14, 2018, after an abysmal Stage 1 performance, the Dragons added four South Korean players to try and cauterize the damage.
These changes made little to no difference. We can theorize why these particular players didn’t synergize and make the splash the Dragons had hoped for, but the combination just didn’t work out. The Dragons still faced staggering losses despite occasionally pushing a team to the final map.
When organizations in esports, or franchises in traditional sports, suffer such devastating losses, they often take years to pick up the pieces and manage to find success. Some teams are never able to recover. Almost no one flips the table within a single season then goes on to be considered one of the top teams in the world.
But the Dragons had hope.
Finding a stride
During the 2018 postseason, the Dragons made drastic overarching changes to their lineup, releasing 75 percent of their active roster. This purge left them with three active members: Weida “Diya” Lu, Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim, and Eui-Seok “Fearless” Lee. While the Dragons were choosing their plan for the upcoming 2019 season, a young but experienced amateur team caught their eye.
Enter KongDoo Panthera.
Just a few months prior, the amateur South Korean team KongDoo Panthera was dominating Overwatch’s secondary league, Overwatch Contenders. They roared past the competition in Group A with an undefeated 5-0 record, only dropping a half-dozen maps. This put KongDoo Panthera in prime position for the playoffs, where they continued to quickly dispatch teams like GC Busan Wave and Meta Bellum. Their unique style centered around an unconventional hero at the time: Pharah.
The only thing that ended their run was a grand final against fan-favorite team RunAway, who would go on to become the dominant force in the Overwatch League known as the Vancouver Titans. After an exhausting seven-game set, RunAway captured the gold for the first time, and KongDoo was sent home with a respectable second place. With stars in their eyes and desperation on their minds, the Dragons acted quickly.
In October 2018, the Shanghai Dragons signed a majority of the KongDoo Panthera lineup. This included Min-seong “diem” Bae, Jin-hyeok “DDing” Yang, Yong-Jin “YOUNGJIN” Jin, Seong-hyeon “Luffy” Yang, and Kyungwoo “CoMa” Son.
However, this wasn’t the end of their roster movement. Before the start of the 2019 season, the Dragons added former Boston Uprising main tank Young-jin “Gamsu” Noh, two days before the team’s Season 2 debut against the Hangzhou Spark.
In it to win it
On Feb. 22, the Shanghai Dragons beat the Boston Uprising to score their first-ever franchise win to a roaring ovation from an emotional Overwatch Arena.
Their first stage playoff appearance happened in Stage 2, where the Dragons squeaked into their first playoff berth as the eighth seed. Sadly, their run would be cut short by eventual champions the San Francisco Shock in the quarterfinals.
It was Stage 3 where the Dragons found their stride. While experimenting with their lineup, they doubled down on an offense-heavy style of play that differed from the traditional GOATS composition. Sombra and Pharah became key weapons in Shanghai’s arsenal, and the Dragons advanced into the playoffs once more, again as the eighth seed.
This time the Dragons didn’t bow out early — they did what many considered impossible.
Their quarterfinal opponents were the ever-dominant New York Excelsior, a team that reigned over the first season of the Overwatch League with an iron grip. The Dragons defeated them convincingly 3-1.
Their next opponent was a team that many would consider the best team in the world, the Vancouver Titans. This was the core that had defeated Kongdoo Panthera and ended their Contenders dreams. The Dragons trounced them 4-1.
And finally, in a grueling seven-game set, the Shanghai Dragons beat the San Fransisco Shock, 4-3, in one of the most exciting matches to be played on the Overwatch League stage.
Displaying grit, mental fortitude, and a willingness to believe, the Shanghai Dragons discarded their laughing stock reputation. Even more poetic is that each match from the Stage 3 playoffs represent a different demon killed off from their past.
The New York Excelsior represent their 0-40 heritage and their disappointing Season 1 performance. The Vancouver Titans represent the players’ past experiences in grand final situations. And the San Fransisco Shock stood as the most recent benchmark, a team that previously stopped them early but couldn’t stand in their way again.
The Dragons went from an aimless team with little direction and no style, to a team that’s not only individually strong, but boasts impressive coordination and a distinctive style that could set a new standard for the Overwatch League. With a new team meta approaching, the Shanghai Dragons have broken through to become Stage 3 champions — and now have their eyes on the final prize of Season 2.