Weeks before the New York Excelsior was crowned the Overwatch League Stage 3 champion, and despite the Boston Uprising's undefeated regular season, New York was still considered the best team in the Overwatch League. On May 4, New York faced the winless Shanghai Dragons, easily the worst team in the Overwatch League.
It started with a nearly five-minute defensive hold from Shanghai on the final point of Numbani. As the team waited for its attack run, the six members of the Shanghai Dragons were always talking, shoring up what they wanted to do in-game while fidgeting with their hand warmers. Their onstage celebration was brief, and most players quickly fell quiet, while support Cheng "Altering" Yage continued to encourage the team.
Eight minutes later, Shanghai was organizing its own push onto Numbani Point C. Altering burned Mercy's Valkyrie, flying forward. The team moved with him. Off-tank Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon threw D.Va's self-destruct towards the point. DPS player Chon "Ado" Gi-hyeon killed New York's Park "Saebyeolbe" Jong-ryeol in a Tracer duel, but Kim "Libero" Hae-seong's Widowmaker avenged his fallen teammate by killing Ado. Libero followed this up with another kill onto Dragons support He "Sky" Junjian's Zenyatta, and yet another onto Lu "Diya" Weida's Windowmaker. The Dragons' push onto Point C was stopped with 55 seconds left on the attack run.
Yet the Dragons had the ultimate advantage with Lee "Fearless" Eui-seok's Winston Primal Rage and Diya's Infra-Sight. Fearless dove onto Libero, but was eliminated by NYXL's Kim "MekO" Tae-hong. Shanghai was then in overtime, just shy of the point.
Diya picked off fellow Widowmaker Libero while Zenyattas on both sides burned through their Transcendences. Diya then killed NXYL Mercy Jung "Anamo" Tae-sung while Bang "JJoNak" Seong-hyun knocked off Ado. Saebyeolbe eliminated Sky, but Altering resurrected him while Geguri managed to get JJoNak with her Self-Destruct. Fearless followed up with a kill onto Song "Janus" Joon-hwa. The rest of the Dragons cleaned up. Shanghai took Point C and the map.
In-game comms were a mix of English, Mandarin and Korean, but were surprisingly clear. All members sounded off. The team filed into position. They counted down. They dove. They repositioned and repeated, calling the team back if necessary.
Yet, when the Dragons won Numbani, the comms erupted into chaos. Altering screamed while half of the team was continuing to shout "Nice! Nice! Nice!" Ado was the first person back into the Dragons' dugout backstage. He sighed loudly in relief at Coach Wang "Rui" Xing-Rui before the rest of the team noisily piled into after him. They were all smiling and talking loudly in both Mandarin and Korean.
"We have Diya," one of the players shouted above the multilingual cacophony.
Outside of competition, conversations over meals for the Shanghai Dragons have the same mixture of languages, and communication is messier still. An hour before the team drove to the Blizzard Arena for practice, they piled into a nearby Chinese restaurant, filling two large tables. Players verbally tripped over each other, chattering loudly in Korean or Mandarin between mouthfuls, trying to teach each other words from their respective languages while talking about the game and their fans.
Geguri was learning English phrases from dad jokes, or "아재개그" as they're called in Korean. After eating a piece of fish, she looked up from her phone.
"Frogs are toadally awesome!" she told me, repeating a joke she shared on social media the day before. She giggled, pleased with herself as I snorted slightly, trying not to laugh. A few moments later, Sky dutifully cleaned up the leftovers for his team, placing what little food was left on the table into carry-out containers.
"We help each other," Sky told me. "We don't just let only the Korean players learn one language in Mandarin -- that would be super hard."
There are many assumptions that can be made about a winless team, especially a team like the Shanghai Dragons, which is now 0-30 across three stages of Overwatch League. The team has only 10 matches remaining on the season to claim that first victory.
Yet the Stage 3 Shanghai Dragons is nothing like its Stage 1-2 iteration. If possible, those first 20 losses should be separated completely from the current lineup. Then, an all-Chinese lineup led by Coach Chen "U4" Congshan funneled most of the team's resources into DPS player Fang "Undead" Chao. The release of Undead and U4 and the arrival of four South Korean players (Geguri, Fearless, Ado, and former Kongdoo Uncia DPS Kim "Daemin" Dae-min), Chinese support Sky, and Coach Rui changed the entire nature of the Dragons and the way they played the game. With a stronger tank line in Fearless and Geguri, Diya and Ado have more room to work with. Combined, Diya and Ado also create a more adaptable DPS line, with both able to flex onto the Tracer so the other can play Widowmaker (Diya) or Genji (Ado) among other DPS heroes.
This isn't to say that communication is always smooth on the Dragons. Not only does the team have a different lineup and style of play from where it started, but it's also combining Chinese and South Korean players on a hybrid roster in a game in which communication is paramount to success.
"When it gets to very detailed problems, we can't actually talk with each other as effectively," Sky admitted. "Back with my former club we didn't have problems with that."
The Dragons' misadventures in communication have reached even the Overwatch League broadcast, by way of Geguri's Twitter account. Every week, the team has a new anecdote from scrims.
"One time Fearless mixed up left and right in Mandarin," Operations Supervisor Aaron Xiang said as we watched the team scrim. "Told Diya, 'Go left, go left.' and he got headshot immediately. For two weeks he joked, 'Why did I trust you?'"
"In the beginning, the Korean players were learning Chinese," Ado said. "But now the Chinese players are learning basic Korean as well so that's been helping."
Although the team employs multiple bilingual members, it's Altering who has become the default communication leader since he understands Korean, English and Mandarin.
The most important quality of the Dragons is its unified determination to press forward through any problems that might arise. When there is a disagreement, it's immediately addressed and discussed. There is a collective effort by the staff to ensure that all players understand what is being said and feel welcome to contribute at all times. If this continues, the Dragons will not be winless come the end of Stage 4, even with the recent loss of Coach Rui, who had to return to China to treat his spondylosis -- which he has been battling since he was a League of Legends player for the Royal Club organization.
Although the Dragons won Numbani on that day, they fell to New York 3-1. Shanghai was much more subdued when it entered the dugout a second time, and listened to a brief wrap up before descending on dinner in the practice room. Sky began chatting animatedly with fellow support Xu "Freefeel" Peixuan. Later Diya joined in. Altering and Daemin laughed in disbelief as Seoul Dynasty support Ryu "Ryujehong" Je-hong started as the team's main tank against the London Spitfire. Ado loaded up into a solo queue game.
It was a brief lull before the team returned, as always, to moving forward.