From their first match in the Overwatch League's inaugural season on Jan. 10, 2018 until Feb. 23, 2019, the Shanghai Dragons lost 42 matches.
It is a number that falls just between the 41-loss streak of the NCAA Division I Towson Tigers men's basketball team (2011-12) and the 46-loss streaks of both the Olivet Comets (1959-61) and Southwest Minnesota State Mustangs (1971-73) in Division II. It is tied with the 42 straight losses of the Sydney University rugby league team (1934-36). It is technically the longest losing streak in professional sports history.
Currently, the Shanghai Dragons have arguably the best team in Overwatch. They're second in the league in overall win rate. There's a strong argument, based on in-game performances, that they're a better team than the Philadelphia Fusion, who hold the best overall record in the league going into the weekend's May Melee tournament. They are a favorite to win the Asia bracket of the event.
The story of the Dragons' improvement can be summed up in a neat statement: They changed almost the entire roster. Yet, it's also a story of immense emotional highs and lows, personal improvement, individual moments of revenge, and multiple perspectives. Here is the Dragons' past, present, and future.
"It felt like coming back home, you know?" Shanghai Dragons main tank Lee "Fearless" Eui-seok
Fearless was a member of the inaugural season Shanghai Dragons roster. He was signed to the team following their winless performance in Stage 1 due to his success as the main tank for Element Mystic in South Korea and he experienced much of the loss streak firsthand.
When Fearless took over for Jing "Roshan" Wenhao after the Dragons underwent their initial roster changes, the team was recharged with energy and hope from their latest roster signings which included Fearless, flex tank Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon, DPS player Chon "Ado" Gi-hyeon, and support He "Sky" Junjuan. Although there would be a language barrier between the Chinese and South Korean players, they were considered talent upgrades to the Dragons' former lineup.
The 2018 Shanghai Dragons' tank line came under fire for their visible lack of communication with the rest of the team. Fearless and Geguri were often ahead of or behind the team while setting up crucial dives. The team's support line couldn't keep them topped up to survive long enough for the Dragons' DPS players to get in and out of teamfights safely while doing damage. Much of this came down to a language barrier within the team and the difficulty of rapidly translating from Mandarin to Korean with some English shortcuts sprinkled between the two.
Fearless left the team due to illness at the beginning of 2019, and former Boston Uprising main tank Noh "Gamsu" Young-jin took over the position, helping lead the Dragons to their first win and eventually a stage title. The success of the Dragons inspired Fearless to improve while on the organization's contenders team in China, Team CC, with the hope of returning to the league.
"Watching other players lifting the champion trophy made me so eager to come back to the league," Fearless said. "So I quickly took care of my health problems, practiced very hard in China, and came back to lift the cup."
In Fearless, the future coach of the Dragons and then-coach of Team CC, Moon "Moon" Byeong-cheol saw a potential for greatness.
"When I saw Fearless for the first time, I thought he was a raw gemstone," Coach Moon said. Moon coached Fearless while on Team CC last year. "I sincerely told him that I saw a gemstone in him, but it depended on him what he would make of it: a trivial stone or a valuable jewel. The choice was all his to make."
Now, Fearless is a part of one of the best, if not the best, teams in Overwatch.
"While off the league, I kept practicing, honing my skills, and completely preparing myself for the day of my return. I'd say my skillset and mindset now is all different from Season 1," he said.
"I think right now he is at the stage of beginning to show some shiny aspects of the gemstone, but not complete yet," Coach Moon said. "I wasn't happy to leave him unfinished as I left Team CC, but now I'm more than happy to get back to work and be able to finish the project."
"I was starting anew here, no matter what kind of bad experiences (losing streak) they had in the past." Shanghai Dragons DPS Bae "Diem" Min-seong
When Diem first arrived on the Shanghai Dragons lineup, the loss streak still hung over the franchise. Diem was seen as a counterpart to the Philadelphia Fusion's Lee "Carpe" Jae-hyeok due to the two creating their gamer tags together, and a talented hitscan player in his own right. From his start on the team through to their first-ever win, Diem didn't feel burdened from the organization's past.
"I didn't feel much pressure because I was starting anew here," Diem said. "No matter what kind of bad experiences (losing streak) they had in the past."
Diem was a crucial part of the Dragons' 2019 success, especially when the triple-tank, triple-support (also called GOATs) meta began to open up and more DPS-heavy compositions started to appear in Stage 3. Together with Yang "DDing" Jin-hyeok, Diem and the Dragons' DPS line helped prove the value of these damage-dealing compositions. Ultimately, Diem was a part of the paradigm shift in the Dragons' staff, their fans, and the Overwatch League community as a whole showing that the Dragons were not only a team that broke a historic loss streak, but a legitimate title contender -- a stepping stone for their dominance thus far in 2020.
"Our coaching staff is coming up with great strategies and we as players have a diverse pool of competitive heroes," Diem said of the Dragons' recent success. Shanghai has managed to consistently outperform opponents despite the volatility of hero pools changing the heroes available to players every week."
"Internally, we have a flexible player for each position and some players who are adept with certain heroes. We can put much pressure on our opponents whatever strategy they bring with them, so I think our well-balanced roster is our strength." Shanghai Dragons Head Coach, Moon "Moon" Byeong-cheol
There are many players who represent the Shanghai Dragons' future. Potential Rookie of the Year candidate Lee "LIP" Jae-won immediately comes to mind. Yet, representing and presenting a more holistic outlook on the future of the team is Dragons Head Coach Moon, who was promoted to the team this year after coaching Team CC. Moon immediately recognized the team's drive and hunger, even after what could be considered a fairly successful 2019, given the team's prior history.
"When I first met the team, the players seemed to be very determined to make a positive change together with all the new recruits, so it was great to have them," Coach Moon said.
Like Diem, Moon believes that the Dragons' greatest strength is their versatility. He credited the balance between their rookies and existing lineup as one of the primary factors in their recent victories.
"On the surface, the newcomers and the existing veterans are well mixed to inspire one another, and our coaching staff members consist of previous pro players, so I'll say we are doing good as one coherent team to accomplish our goals," Coach Moon said. "Internally, we have a flexible player for each position and some players who are adept with certain heroes. We can put much pressure on our opponents whatever strategy they bring with them, so I think our well-balanced roster is our strength."
It has been two and a half years since the Overwatch League began. In esports, anything over a year seems like both the blink of an eye and a lifetime. Less than two years ago, the Dragons were in the throes of what would become a historic losing streak. Now, they're one of the best teams in the league.