Around this time last year, the professional Overwatch team Shanghai Dragons had just finished up a history-making 0-40 season. At the time, nobody would have expected that just one year later they’d be leaving the league’s top three teams in a heap of black-and-blue bodies on the ground. Maybe they should change their name to the Shanghai Phoenixes.
Overwatch League season two’s third stage culminated in a mini-tournament over the weekend with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line. Shanghai Dragons came out on top. They had the hardest possible path to this championship: They barely made it into the stage finals as the eighth seed, and then they took out the league’s three best teams—New York Excelsior, Vancouver Titans, and San Francisco Shock—back to back to back.
At this point, I wouldn’t say that nobody saw this coming. After season one, Shanghai booted most of its roster and snapped up a bunch of talented players, including portions of an especially successful Korean team called Kongdoo Panthera. Even so, Shanghai 2.0 has largely managed a middle-of-the-pack performance this year, losing more matches than they won in stage one and nearly as many as they won in stage two. More and more, though, things began to click during stage three. As the long-reviled three-tank-three-support GOATS meta finally began to recede, Shanghai’s penchant for DPS-heavy strategies started to pay off.
It wasn’t until last Thursday, though, that it began to feel like a Shanghai stage win could actually happen. The Dragons took on New York Excelsior, a perennial top team that hadn’t dropped a match for all of stage three. While there were a couple bumps along the way, Shanghai largely steamrolled New York thanks to overwhelming plays from Jinhyeok “DDing” Yang (playing Pharah), Minseong “Diem” Bae (Sombra), and Youngjin “Youngjin” Jin (Doomfist). New York, a team that’s somewhat famously had trouble adapting to new strategies in the past, never quite adapted, largely favoring tanks and supports. Shanghai took the match 3-1.
The question going into Saturday’s match against the Vancouver Titans was whether Shanghai could repeat that outstanding performance in the semifinals. The Titans, at times, have been even more dominant in the GOATS meta than New York this season. Again, though, Shanghai’s DPS-heavy stylings won out, with well-placed rockets from DDing’s Pharah and some diabolically sneaky sleep darts and grenades from Seonghyeon “Luffy” Yang’s Ana stealing the show. Unlike the previous match, this one was a best of seven, and Shanghai took it 4-1.
Yesterday, Shanghai looked to trample stage two’s winners, the similarly improved San Francisco Shock, just as ruthlessly, and they nearly pulled it off. They opened the match by picking up three maps to San Francisco’s zero thanks to absolutely nightmarish headshots from Diem’s Widowmaker and big, angry punches from Youngjin’s Doomfist, alongside the requisite stellar Pharah and Sombra play from DDing and Diem. A Shanghai victory—the Cinderella story of Cinderella stories—seemed inevitable. Respected authorities on the subject began preemptively celebrating on Twitter.
But then, on Havana, San Francisco turned things around. On attack, they nearly completed the map, and on defense, they didn’t let Shanghai take a single point. Suddenly, SF was on the board, with one map to Shanghai’s three. San Francisco rode this momentum into two more map wins, taking advantage of Shanghai’s weakness on Eichenwalde and some glaring mistakes on Ilios.
The two teams walked into the match’s final map, Dorado, tied 3-3. However, this was an abysmal map pick for SF, and Shanghai knew it. Plentiful open sightlines and airspace meant Diem’s Widowmaker and DDing’s Pharah could go nuts. One hail of rockets and sniper bullets later, San Francisco had barely made any progress on the map. On attack, Shanghai blew past SF’s meager finish line and won the match 4-3.
In a post-match interview, tank player and team leader Young-jin “Gamsu” Noh was equal parts thrilled and humbled.
“I’ve been a pro gamer for the past five years, and this is the only time I’ve actually won a big tournament or a big win in my career,” he said. “It means a lot to me. I want to thank all the fans, all the people supporting Shanghai Dragons, all the coaching staff, and also of course, all the teammates on Shanghai Dragons. Thank you so much.”