On Saturday at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, the Shanghai Dragons secured the worst single-season record in professional sports history by finishing the inaugural season of Overwatch League without winning a single match.
Yeah, that's right. The Dragons went 0-40. Not a single match win.
The team had a map differential of -120. There are no silver linings in this story. When the San Francisco Shock turned up as the Dragon's final opponent of the season, there was no climactic ending. Like the rest of the league did most of the season, the Shock handled the Dragons with little difficulty and dispatched the Chinese representative in a clean sweep.
This season was no fluke. This isn't the anti-Leicester City of the virtual world. From the very start of the preseason, Shanghai was at a massive disadvantage skill-wise when compared to the other teams in the Overwatch League, and the gap only widened as the season went along. Although the team made some upgrades mechanically mid-season to try and plug some holes in the already sunken ship, the added stress of mixing Chinese and Korean speakers together only muddled the team's already shoddy chemistry even more; the club was in shambles. Almost every game at least one Dragon would show up and play well to inspire hope, but never once did the team, through its entire 40 game stretch, ever play on the same page well enough to earn a victory in the standings.
Before the season even began, the team started off on the wrong foot. The team wasn't able to sign the best Chinese players due to age restriction and came into the league unprepared. Save for the team's lone constant bright spot in Weida "Diya" Lu, Shanghai was outmuscled by a majority of the league. The lack of a team house and needing to assimilate to a new culture kept Shanghai slogging in the mud whilst underdogs like the Boston Uprising and Philadelphia Fusion were learning a proper structure to succeed.
At first, Shanghai thought the way to catch up to other teams was to practice more than everyone else, and when it realized that overworking the players wasn't working, the team was already the laughingstock of the competition, having failed to win a single match through the first quarter of the season.
Outside of its few close calls and the team's final match with the other bottom-dwellers in the league, Florida Mayhem, a matchup with the Dragons almost became a foregone conclusion for the viewers at home. It became stale after a while. What started as a mere joke of going "0-40" started becoming reality when the team's mid-season upgrades of signing South Korean players didn't fix the already gaping problems in the team's infrastructure. The team never had stability, and the carousel of players, coaches, and personnel were simple band-aids to an overlying injury that is far greater than a single person on stage or in the backroom.
In traditional professional American sports when a franchise has a disaster of a season, its fans and management can look towards the draft. A saving grace to an awful, forgettable season. The Cleveland Browns went 0-16 last season, but with the addition of Heisman winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, the Browns contingent can dream of a future where the gunslinger leads the franchise to a brighter future.
Shanghai has nothing to look forward to. There is no draft in the Overwatch League, and if the team expects to win its first match in franchise history -- the Dragons didn't even win a single match in the preseason -- it can't rely on a magical savior falling onto its lap. It'll either need to gut the roster and start over from scratch or hope that it can somehow convince one of the best players in the world to join a team that went 0-40 in its first season. Unless Shanghai has endless pockets, it's hard to fathom an outcome where the team can improve its roster by just plugging in one or two players. For the Dragons to become a respectable franchise, it'll almost assuredly need a rehaul from top management down to the players sitting on the stage.
It's not going to be easy. A lot of the players that people hoped would sign with Shanghai before the season started are either underage or have retired from the game entirely, moving onto Player Unknown's Battlegrounds, which has a far bigger and vibrant competitive scene in China than Overwatch. The addition of Shanghai was supposed to jump-start the fandom of Overwatch in China, and it feels like it has only damaged it, with only the most loyal and hardcore fans still standing behind their country's team.
When I was visiting Shanghai last year for the League of Legends World Championships, I checked out APAC, one of the biggest international tournaments for the game pre-Overwatch League. While I didn't expect the same amount of fervor as the soldout League of Legends crowds, I was dismayed to see that the turn out for the event was sparse, and outside of dedicated Runaway fans who traveled to see their beloved South Korean team, a lack of energy in the crowd. When Miraculous Youngster, the country's best and most promising team, was eliminated from the tournament, it felt like all air had been removed from the venue. The already small crowd dwindled even further, and only the diehard Runaway fans remained.
Chinese Overwatch needed a hero, and all it received was a season of drama, constant changes, and defeat. The players gave it their best try, but even in its closing moments, it never really felt like I was watching a cohesive unit -- a real team.
If the Dragons want to make their fans proud, it must stop promising to "do better" and to hope for a better result "next time." There is no next time. There are no moral victories here. Shanghai went 0-40 in the inaugural season of the Overwatch League, and it took a combined effort from poor decisions at the top to lackluster play on stage to achieve it. This season was a failure.
Next season, for the sake of the loyal Chinese fans who still believe in their country's Overwatch scene, I hope they get their hero.