When you have invested over $20 million to buy a franchise in the Overwatch League, you then need to populate that team with stars. When NetEase, a Chinese internet company and regional partner of Blizzard, bought the rights to a team, which they subsequently named the Shanghai Dragons, they may well have hoped for dominance.
Along with South Korea, China is a hotbed of esports gaming. It’s produced many top-quality individual players, notably in StarCraft II. There are some outstanding teams too, most notably in the League of Legends LPL series.
There is no lack of talent when it comes to Chinese esports players, which appears to be the thinking behind Shanghai Dragon’s team selection for the tournament. Their roster comprised predominantly of young Chinese players. They would be playing for a large part of the year in North America in one of the toughest, longest, and expensive esports tournaments ever devised.
Unfortunately for Shanghai, their dragon doesn’t seem to be breathing any fire at all at the moment.
Tough start for the Dragons
All teams involved in the Overwatch League played two preseason games to warm up for the event.
The Dragons went down 4-0 to Seoul Dynasty in their opening game, but against a team packed with South Korean talent, that was perhaps an expected result. Things looked better in their second match, a narrow 3-2 loss to Boston Uprising, a team many experts said would be strong contenders in the inaugural Overwatch League.
Shanghai actually led that game 2-1 at one stage and only narrowly lost the final two. Although preparation hadn’t been ideal, the Dragons certainly didn’t look like they’d be uncompetitive in the tournament.
Then, Stage One began. In their 10 tourney games, Shanghai Dragons lost all 10. In fact, they won only six legs, losing 36.
It couldn’t get any worse than that, or so it seemed. Then, the dragons sank to new lows in Stage Two of the tournament. Once again, they lost all 10 of their matches, but this time won just two legs.
The team made some roster changes hoping for a positive impact on the team for Stage Three. While they won a season-high nine legs in their ten games, they once again lost all 10 matches. That’s a 32-game losing streak if you count the preseason.
The final stage of the regular season, Stage Four began a few weeks ago. Having played seven of their 10 games, the Shanghai Dragons remain winless. They have just three games remaining against Boston Uprising on Saturday, Los Angeles Gladiators on June 14, and San Francisco Shock on June 16.
In that trio, only the game against Boston Uprising feels like a realistic shot for the Dragons.
Back home in China, the team has come in for some hefty criticism from fans on social media. One commenter labeled the team “the worst sports team in China.” Others drew comparisons with the struggling Chinese national soccer team, which is often ridiculed in the country for their poor performances.
While this unkind criticism is understandable in one sense, it’s also unfair for such a very young team, playing in a brand-new league, against the best players in the world, in a foreign country far away from their homeland.
The root cause of the Dragons’ problems
For starters, picking a team of predominantly Chinese players, with a few Korean players added to the mix, immediately created an issue with communication between players. That’s a crucial factor in esports, obviously.
The fact that the team has to employ interpreters to ensure players can communicate effectively is a terrible sign and a big setback.
Others have criticized the team’s draconian training schedule, which a team representative stated saw their players practice for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Clarification came when the team retracted their initial statement stating that players practiced for eight hours a day, with four hours spent on rest or travel. Some critics still felt that was excessive. They’ve even raised the issue of professional esports players becoming unionized to avoid exploitation.
Of course, then there’s the downward momentum that naturally comes from a losing streak this long. It’s hard to imagine how low the team’s confidence must be right now.
Hope for the future?
There’s little doubt that after this disastrous first season Shanghai Dragons owners and shakers will adopt a fresh approach for the second season. However, that may not be as pressing an issue as you may think.
With new Overwatch League franchises purportedly for sale soon at $60 million, even a losing team could be a winning monetary proposition.
However, the romantic in me hopes this team will spend the off-season coming to grips with the game, sorting out their issues. Maybe they can come back next season and get that elusive first win.