Shanghai Dragons in search of answers far away from home

Losing hurts. And for the Shanghai Dragons players, halfway around the world from their homes in China, struggling can be even more painful on foreign land. Can the team and its growing fan base turn things around? Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

During halftime in the Overwatch League, teams go backstage into a designated dugout to discuss tactics and go over the match at hand before returning to the stage for the second half. It's as with any other traditional sport -- players turning their heads to the coaching staff, receiving orders face-to-face in the final preparation to see if the correct adjustments can be made in the allotted time.

The Shanghai Dragons players, however, don't move from their seats when halftime comes. They do speak to their coaches, but instead of getting up from their perch on the main stage at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, 6,000 miles from their home in China, the team doesn't budge. As the opposing team goes to its dugout to discuss strategies, the Dragons talk onstage through their microphones, getting directions from the coaches backstage.

It has not been easy for the only Chinese team in the Overwatch League through the first month of the season. Through the club's first eight regular-season games, the team has failed to pick up a single victory, the only team in the league left to do so. In the team's first few matches of the season, the Dragons showed little to no life in-game, the outcome feeling like it was already decided before it had a chance to load into the first map. So far, Shanghai has won only four maps while dropping 29; the team's minus-25 point differential is far and away the worst in the entire league, even including the Dallas Fuel (-14) and Florida Mayhem (-18), who both have only a single match win.

Due to its lackluster performance, rumors began to swirl about the team, from its practice structure to the choice of players on the roster. When the Shanghai Dragons franchise was announced, fans expected the country's top club, Miraculous Youngster, to be the core of the new Overwatch League squad. As the representation of a country with a rich history in esports, MY, an all-Chinese roster with recent domestic championships and a competitive record against some of the best South Korean teams, was a logical and worthy choice to showcase the "Shanghai" banner to the rest of the world.

No players on the MY roster were selected to play on the Dragons. China's top Overwatch team, having been passed over for team selection, would disband not long after, with various members of the team leaving the Overwatch scene entirely to focus on Player Unknown Battlegrounds. The Dragons roster would be completed with various members from teams that fell to MY in competitions leading into Overwatch League. While there were a few standout stars on the roster, namely Vici Gaming's DPS Weida "Diya" Lu, the roster as a whole left a lot to be desired. Could this really be the best NetEase, the owner of the Dragons and the operator of Overwatch in China, could put together?

"I think I play [well] but I still need to be better to be called an ace player or a star player," said Diya. "Sure, there is huge pressure [being seen as the team's top player] but I [have] to carry on, move on, and [get] the first victory for the team."

Nothing has been easy for the Dragons players or staff since moving to America. All the players on the roster were accustomed to living and practicing in a team house, but the move to Los Angeles for at least the first two seasons of the league forced the players to change their practice habits. An hour from the Blizzard Arena, where the team practices, the Dragons players leave their house every day to brave the L.A. traffic just to get to the arena, arriving around 11:20 a.m., and they finish the day's practice around midnight following its final scrimmage.

Although the team does technically practice around 12 hours a day inside the Blizzard Arena, coach Congshan "U4" Chen reassured that the long days included lunch, dinner and a one-hour break for the players. When the team started practicing at the start of the season, it would have three scrimmages a day, but that recently has been cut to two.

"We definitely have a plan," said U4 when questioned if Shanghai was looking to add players to the roster at the opening of the transfer window following Stage 1. "But due to the league rules, we couldn't just say or sign [who we want]. But we definitely have a plan, and when the time is due, we will announce the plan."

That plan might include Kim "Geguri" Se-yeon and two other South Korean players who reportedly will join the team later this month. One immediate challenge for the new South Korean players will be playing on a team of Mandarin speakers, but according to the report, they will learn Mandarin eventually.

Losing is the loneliest feeling in sports. A team, having traveled halfway across the world, on foreign soil where the players don't speak the local language, is practicing in suboptimal conditions and, quite frankly, outmatched severely by almost every team in the league when it comes to mechanical skill. That makes the feeling of a loss amplified to the hundredth degree. During halftime, the players, expressionless, would look out into the crowd, seeing faces they don't recognize and then back down at their screens of defeat, which is the only thing that has become familiar to the Dragons since moving to America.

"I wouldn't say there was no difference [between us and the top teams in the league], because [we're losing] the match," said Diya. "But I won't say there is a huge difference. I think the problem is more that we need to communicate better. We need to do better."

Over the past two weeks, things have changed for the Dragons. A quick glance at the standings won't show it -- the Dragons, 0-8, remain at the bottom -- but every time the team takes the stage, the atmosphere has changed in the Blizzard Arena. Above even geolocation and player nationalities, fans love nothing more than a good underdog story, and this Dragons team, having become the Bad News Bears of the Overwatch League, resembling more so the Cleveland Browns than the Seoul Dynasty or New York Excelsior, has become that story.

Before, when the Dragons entered the arena, you could hear a pin drop outside of the background music playing while the team made the long walk to the stage. Now, when the team takes the stage, the fans, some wearing jerseys of the team the Dragons are playing against, are giving them a warm ovation. In the Dragons' match against the Seoul Dynasty last week, one of the league's best-performing and well-liked teams, the fans turned against the favorite, jumping on Shanghai's side when the Chinese team put up a resistance in the first map of the series. Even though Seoul fielded a B-team and would go on to win the series by a comfortable 3-1 scoreline, the crowd still cheered for the Dragons every step of the way, more bright-red-and-yellow jerseys showing up in the stands as the weeks went on. In return, the Shanghai players have opened up a bit to show off their personalities -- Wenhao "Roshan" Jing dancing his way to the stage in the team's most recent matchup, smiling, and down the aisle to fans reaching to embrace him.

It's not a secret to Shanghai that it has been bad. No one has taken the losses harder than a team that is carrying its entire country's hopes on its back. When interviewed, unlike other teams, the Dragons will sometimes take time following losses to compose themselves before talking, wanting to talk over things and decompress from the loss. In ESPN's interview with U4, the team requested over an hour to prepare for the interview. The team doesn't want to be the laughingstock of the league, and even though things have gotten better in terms of picking up map wins inside matches, the weight on their shoulders won't alleviate until the Dragons can grab its first non-moral victory in the Overwatch League.

"I'm very thankful from the bottom of my heart [for the fans cheering for us], especially when we're not having the best performance with this record," said Diya. "Still, the fans are super supportive. I'm moved."

On Super Bowl Sunday, the Dragons were not in the Blizzard Arena halls practicing. The team, having been invited by the Philadelphia Fusion, went to a Super Bowl party along with the Boston Uprising to watch the game pitting the New England Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles. There, surrounded by players in a different environment and, for one of the first times since moving, just being kids by simply having fun and laughing, the Dragons took another step to becoming the team it believes it can become: a team that is not pitied, but respected.