The Shanghai Dragons’ interim head coach, Jun-Young “Kong” Son, is no stranger to top-flight esports, having competed for a combined six years as a player (StarCraft II, Heroes of the Storm) and coach (Overwatch) in South Korea’s premier competitions. While no amount of experience could have fully prepared him for his current situation—being suddenly thrust into the driver’s seat of an 0-20 team—he is making the most out of the opportunity.
Kong had worked with Chinese organizations before, having briefly played Heroes for Snake eSports in 2015, but had never learned the language. As Shanghai’s assistant coach, he focused on providing tactical and individual coaching via an interpreter, but after head coach Congshan “U4” Chen’s departure from the organization, Kong has taken on the extra burden.
Walking into the press room on the last Wednesday of Stage 2 after Shanghai’s defeat to Houston, Kong looked lively and determined, if understandably disappointed with the loss. He was happy to offer insights on the team’s past woes, recent acquisitions, and hopes for the future.
The following interview has been translated and edited for clarity.
Did you work closely with U4? How much have your duties changed since he left?
We never got to talk much due to the language barrier, although we communicated as much as we could via interpreter for coaching matters. As for my duties, I don’t think too much has changed. My coaching has always been focused at the micro level—I give a lot of individual feedback, whether it be regarding performance or mentality or communication—and I’ve been continuing to do that. Right now [...] there aren’t any other hands-on coaches here with the team, only an analyst. But I’m just focusing on doing my job.
There was a period early in the season when the team looked lost on stage for a few weeks. Fortunately, they seem to be in much better spirits now. How was the internal atmosphere back then, and how did it change for the better?
To be honest, I had never lost that many games in my life. And the same went for all of our players, since they all were good players in China. No one had ever experienced such a negative streak before, so we were all a bit shook, a bit mentally broken. But after a while we came to realize that all we could do was try to get better collectively, one step at a time, and so the mood gradually improved.
A number of negative rumors about the team circulated back then, such as “the players aren’t getting to eat any Chinese food” or “the players are being cruelly overworked.” Did those rumors affect the team?
I think such rumors only started because we weren’t playing well. The organization has actually been really good about food—they cook or buy pretty much anything the players want. And from my perspective, I don’t think we’ve ever over-trained. I think we practice around 10 hours a day on average, with plenty of breaks in between. So I honestly don’t think it’s that much. To be clear, it was always about 10 hours a day. We didn’t scale it down after the rumors surfaced or anything.
Regarding the team’s overall performance, which problems have been the most difficult to fix?
At the top level, it’s all about mistakes. And we’ve made a lot of small mistakes in our games, both in terms of coordination and individual play, that accumulated into large problems.
Based on previous interviews, the Shanghai Dragons always seemed to have great pride in representing China. Was there any pushback against the idea of signing non-Chinese players to the roster?
No. We’ve needed a Genji player for quite a while, and we considered Chinese players first, obviously. But all of the players we wanted to bring in weren’t of age yet. So we expanded the net. We decided to disregard nationality and only consider skill. That’s how Ado was chosen. And after we picked up a Korean Genji, it came up in internal discussions that it would be wiser to get a Korean frontline as well so that they could all coordinate.
Could you tell us how the three Korean players were chosen?
There aren’t many great Genji players who are of age for the Overwatch League, even in Korea. Amongst the eligible ones, Ado looked to be the best fit, so he was picked up first.
As for Fearless, I immediately wanted to sign him when I saw him play in the last Nexus Cup. I pride myself on having a good eye for main tank talent, and I was enthralled by him. He does still have some rough spots in his game, but he’ll be really good with some tuning.
And as for Geguri, she was recommended to me by a number of coaches and players—some in Korea, others in the Overwatch League. Out of all the eligible flex tanks we could sign, Geguri was the most endorsed. She was recommended by so many people. Everyone told me she was really good.
Once the three Korean players properly gel with the rest of the roster, will we be able to see a completely different Shanghai? What should we expect from the Dragons in Stage 3?
Many obstacles still lie ahead, including language barriers and [big-stage] inexperience, so it would be foolish to make any definitive statements. But I believe we can and should aim for a 50 percent win rate, at the very least. If things go well, I think we could do even better.
Will the team be trying out new styles of play? What are your strategic leanings as a coach?
I’ve always coached an aggressive style, going for the throat whenever possible. Maybe it’s because I can’t stand long, boring standoffs. I’ve always put a focus on running Genji-Tracer well, back at Mighty and Ardeont, so I believe it’s going to be similar for Shanghai, although the meta will come first, as it always should. We’ll run compositions that make sense within the meta.
How are those Chinese lessons going along for the three Korean pickups? What’s in-game communication like right now?
It’s mostly Chinese and some English. I’ve told the Korean players to avoid using any Korean in game, because they all need to be using Chinese and Chinese only in the future. Obviously they aren’t fluent yet, so the Chinese players are helping them out by using English when necessary.
Has your own Chinese improved since joining the team?
I do want to learn. Recently I’ve been trying to join the Korean recruits when they’re taking classes.
How is your relationship with the team’s Chinese players?
It’s really great, although we need an interpreter for [important] things. We have a very friendly atmosphere going on. We play pranks on each other, we jokingly swear in each other’s languages, stuff like that. All of our players are really, really kind people.
The team has been subject to a lot of criticism over the past two stages, due to their poor performance. Do you have any messages for them?
I want to apologize to our players. If they’ve performed poorly, a lot of it’s on the coaching staff. We picked those players, coached those players, played those players—it’s our job to make them play well. I don’t think I did the very best job at helping them succeed, partly due to the language barrier, since there are limitations in working through an interpreter. So I’m sorry.
Do you have any last words for the team’s fans?
I promise to give everyone a fair chance to play, regardless of whether they’re Korean or Chinese. And I’ll work hard to make sure each and every one of our players improves so that they can become one of the better players in the league. I won’t let anyone who has been coached by me leave with a reputation for being a bad player. I’ll do my very best to that end.
Catch the new-look Shanghai Dragons as they kick off Stage 3 with a showdown against the Dallas Fuel at 4 p.m. PDT. Tune in to the action live on Twitch, MLG.com and the MLG app, OverwatchLeague.com, or the official Overwatch League app.