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Re-imagine Dragons: How Shanghai stole the OWL thunder

At around 1am Central European time on Monday morning, while most Europeans were settling down for a good night’s sleep, two Overwatch League teams in Burbank California were reaching the climax of a tense and volatile three-hour battle for the title of Stage 3 Champions.

One of the teams - the San Francisco Shock - were the reigning champions, appearing in their third consecutive stage finals having cruised through the play-off eliminations with the loss of just one single map.

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On the other side of the stage were the Shanghai Dragons, who had narrowly claimed the last remaining playoff place after a closing day victory over Philadelphia Fusion. Their miraculous playoff run saw unlikely victories against New York Excelsior and the peerless Vancouver Titans, regarded by many as the greatest team to ever play on the Overwatch stage.

At face value, the Shanghai Dragons was a proud Chinese team comprising six Korean players, competing for their first ever title. But to even the most casual of Overwatch League fans, the Shanghai Dragons are immediately associated with a less desirable title: over the course of two seasons, Shanghai Dragons became infamous as the team with the longest running losing streak in organised sport history. This is the story of how Shanghai recovered from 42 consecutive match losses to finally emerge as Stage 3 champions.

As one of the first 7 franchises to pay their way into the Overwatch League, the Shanghai Dragons planned to build a team around the phenomenal success of the 2017 China World Cup team. Their goal was to showcase the best of Chinese Overwatch - a region infamous for its ‘meta-bubble’ and tendency for devising unique compositions and aggressive game strategy. Within weeks, they had cobbled together a team comprising the best of Chinese Overwatch, including the renowned Freefeel, Fiveking and Ado. To balance the team, they added some Korean talent including the DPS talent, Diya, and the exceptionally talented off-tank, Geguri.

Almost immediately things started to go wrong. Due to visa problems, several of the Shanghai Dragons were unable to train with their team in LA, and they arrived just days before pre-season began. A difficult start quickly snowballed into a nightmare stage 1, as Shanghai lost all ten of their opening competitive fixtures.

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By the end of stage 2, both Shanghai Dragons and the Overwatch League organisation were learning a difficult lesson.

The problem stemmed from the fact that the Overwatch League modelled almost every aspect of its structure on traditional American Sports organisations. By designing everything from their logo to their ‘divisional’ structure on sports like the NFL and NBA, Overwatch League hoped to draw favourable comparison with those popular sports. The flipside of that vision is that they left themselves vulnerable to unfavourable comparison when things went wrong.

When the Dragons finished stage 2, their record was 20 games without a win.

Unwanted attention

Mainstream media began to pick up on this nightmare season, and the similarities between the Overwatch League structure and major American sports made it irresistible for news outlets to compare the Dragons’ losing streak with the worst performances in organised sport. National media interest gathered, and speculation intensified to see if the Dragons’ would break the 0-28 record set by the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA.

On June 16, the Dragons lost their final game of the season 0-4 to the SF Shock. Shanghai had played 40 matches and had lost them all. They went into the history books as the worst team in organised sport history.

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But, quietly, the organisation set about correcting their course. On September 2nd, they released a tweet confirming the departure of their entire Chinese roster, leaving just 3 Korean players on their books. Korean coaching staff were appointed, including coaches BlueHaS and Levi from Korea’s Tier 2 structure.

Months of trials and evaluations were conducted during the off-season, and six new Korean players were added to the roster, blending raw talent such as Diem and DDing with the talent from season 1. When veteran tank, Gamsu, joined the Dragons it seemed like a new dawn was rising for the new look Dragons.

Immediately, their hopes were dashed. In their opening game, a new Chinese team built around Chinese players - Hangzhou Spark - crushed the Dragons’ hopes. In their second match, the Dragons were routed by the newcomers Vancouver Titans, a team devised completely of tier 2 players.

The turning point

When the Shanghai Dragons sat down to play Boston Uprising on February 23rd, their winless streak was 42 games, and their confidence looked shot.

Just over an hour later all that had changed.

As the overtime wick on Horizon Lunar Colony burnt out, the crowds in the Blizzard arena erupted in celebration and Shanghai Dragons finally broke organised sports longest losing streak.

Dragons players fist-bumped.
Fans in the arena danced.
LA Valiant fans roared with victory.
Two girls in NYXL shirts broke down in tears. Nobody is really sure why.

Shanghai didn't just snap their streak, though - they looked absolutely insane. Led by a god-tier performance from DDing on his Sombra, the Dragons dominated Boston for most of the match and delivered an incredibly co-ordinated and disciplined performance.

Nobody beats the Shanghai Dragons 43 times in a row.

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When they sat down to face the San Francisco Shock, the Dragons looked far removed from the abject and insecure faces behind the "worst team in sports history". They had bucked Overwatch’s prevailing meta of tank-based compositions, and embraced a triple-DPS roster allowing DDing to showcase his claim as the world’s best Pharah and allowing Diem to destroy the Shock’s backline with a phenomenal display on Widowmaker. The Dragons raced into a 3-0 lead, before the Shock finally halted their progress with a strong defence on Havana.

On Ilios and Eichenwalde, Shock narrowly held off the Dragons, until a fierce defence on Dorado finally allowed the Dragons to clutch stage victory.

Once again, the Blizzard arena burst into celebration, and red and yellow ticker-tape cascaded onto the crowds for the first time. The worst team in the history of sports had just completed the most unlikely turnaround. In just over 12 months, the Dragons’ had re-evaluated, regrouped, reconstructed and reinvigorated itself, and in the space of three days they had beaten the finest teams ever to play Overwatch to become the first Chinese team to hold a stage title.

When stage 4 resumes in just under two weeks, we can expect the Titans and the Shock will reassert their dominance, but for now, a Dragon rises.

Pictures: Blizzard/Overwatch League

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