What Winning Means for an Esports Team Whose Identity Was Losing
Shanghai Dragons' first-ever victory in Overwatch League was long-awaited, but what comes next?
'Shanghai Dragons fans cheer for the team's first won / Sean Costello for Blizzard Entertainment
Last weekend the Shanghai Dragons broke one of the longest running losing streaks ever, their 407 days without a win being almost unprecedented in either esports or traditional sports of any kind. Shanghai’s 0-42 slump finally ended with their first win of the Overwatch League, Blizzard’s franchised competitive gaming league that’s now two weeks into its second season.
It was a triumphant moment for weary fans to see their Dragons take down Boston in three straight maps. With each individual point across each map, you could hear the excitement build as the commentators and crowd began to realize what they were seeing.
In season one, teams would usually run over the Dragons. In the course of 40 matches, Shanghai would win only 21 maps, tie two, and lose 141. A hopeful start in a match would quickly give way to that stomach-sinking resignation to another loss. But in stark contrast to all that came before, the hope didn’t seem to die Friday night.
When it finally happened, the arena erupted in celebration. Even if you’re a Boston fan, it’s hard to not feel something.
But for a team largely defined by its underdog status, where do the Dragons go from here? Will people who loved a team with an 0-40 inaugural season record be as invested in one that opened its 2019 campaign with a more respectable 1-2?
Shanghai has had a checkered history since its inception as one of the founding teams in the league. One coach stepped down after issues including tampering and account sharing, and another just two months later citing health issues. One of its best players, Fang “Undead” Chao, was released from the roster due to personal issues. The team’s 12-hour six days a week practice schedule came under due scrutiny, and several player additions throughout the season seemed to have little impact on the team’s chances.
Still, the Dragons became one of the most follow-able teams in the league due to two factors: the undeniable love any audience has for an underdog story, and the star power of off-tank D.va prodigy Se-yeon “Geguri” Kim.
Geguri’s talent on D.va brought both adoration and skepticism, as her role as the first woman in the Overwatch League made her a reluctant icon for girls everywhere. Add the charm of her Twitter presence and frequent interactions with other league fan-favorites like Austin “Muma” Wilmot, and Geguri became the hopeful, cheerful face of a burgeoning fandom. In a league where the most visible faces can sometimes be the most vocal trash-talkers, teams like Shanghai, alongside others like Houston and Hangzhou, work to embrace passionate, spirited people who aren’t always represented in esports.
So when the Dragons thoroughly cleaned house in the offseason, retaining only three of the 13 players it had accrued over the course of the first season, it was hard to tell how much of that original spirit remained. None of the Dragons who played out the slump in the first place were on-stage for match point, and only one played at all. Eui-seok “Fearless” Lee is on personal leave in South Korea, Weida “Diya” Lu didn’t get any play time, and Geguri was only on for the first map.
But the current Dragons are scrappy. Leading the charge is former Boston player Young-jin “Gamsu” Nioh, whose main tank play was often clutch. Jin-kyeok “DDing” Yang, whose hot hands on Sombra netted hack after hack and massive, push-halting EMP ultimates. Even on the standard triple-tank triple-healer, the ultimates were better and coordination stronger, resulting in points that seemed completely uncharacteristic for this team.
It’s important to note here that another problem of the old Shanghai was communication; some of its players were from China, others from South Korea, so linguistic barriers presented problems for in-game comms. But the new Dragons, with the exception of Diya, all hail from South Korea.
The supports, Seong-hyeon “Luffy” Yang’s solid Zenyatta and Kyung-woo “CoMa” Son, backed up the Sombra-tinged triple-triple and in three maps, confidently ended the slump. It was like someone forgot to tell the team about the 42 games behind them, but maybe it was the lack of ingrained loss that gave this version of Shanghai what it needed to win. But is a Shanghai that isn’t the perennial underdog still Shanghai?
The season has only begun, and it’s important to remember the team is still 1-2, though those two are what one might call “quality losses” to the Hangzhou Spark and Vancouver RunAw- err, Titans. This Dragons squad isn’t just one that was able to break the streak, but could go on to contest more among the league’s ranks.
How does a team so defined—through its fandom, commentary, and league record—as being the underdog retain its identity when it wins? Will all that fan fervor, the tears and cheers over that first big W, start to subside as this team becomes just another team in the middle of the pack?
You might look to Geguri now, as the core of the team’s spirit. While that remains true, she was still on the sidelines for the winning point. Geguri’s shift into a secondary role is a sound one for basic team composition reasons: the Dragons’ answer to the current, prevalent trend of triple-tank, triple-healer lineups looks to center around DDing’s Sombra, which means one tank has to sit out, and so Zarya player Min-seong “Diem” Bae swapped out; a curious swap, when Zarya was a hero Geguri was known for long before the Overwatch League was formed. It makes clear game sense, but from a storyline viewpoint, Geguri’s distance from the win celebration was symbolic of the separation between Dragons-then, and Dragons-now.
Shanghai might seem like a Ship of Theseus for its fandom, but even in the face of losing its underdog status, there is freedom for these Dragons to define themselves now. There was a shadow cast over every match leading up to this point, a constant question of whether this team would ever actually win. These swaps are pragmatic. Losing is an accepted part of competing, but a streak that long cannot be fun, and leaving that record in the dust is the first step towards building whatever comes next.
Now that they’ve shown they can, their future is theirs to determine, apart from expectations and the desperation borne of a zero. That single one in the win column might become the most important of the season, but the lack of it was something fans might have found value in. So much was invested by team and fans alike in seeing this day happen. Now they all have to wake up, get to work, face the next game, and think about what a future without a winless Shanghai could look like.