History can be a funny thing—just ask the Shanghai Dragons. All year they’ve been telling us all the ways in which they’re not the same team that could not manage a single win in 40 tries: new players, new coaches, new resolve, next question. Week by week, stage by stage, they’ve proven with increasingly self-assured results that they are no longer the Overwatch League’s lovable losers. And on Sunday at Blizzard Arena Los Angeles, in the last stage crowning of the season before the big one, the 2019 Shanghai Dragons buried the narrative once and for all with a nervy, riotous 4-3 win over the San Francisco Shock.
Ask the Dragons a week ago, and they wouldn’t have pictured themselves here: confetti stuck in their hair and peripherals, arena glowing a fiery red, brief tears of happiness, a bouquet of balloons for Min-Sung “Diem” Bae to cart into the postmatch press conference.
“To be honest, when we lost to Guangzhou at the Atlanta Homestand, we actually were kind of discouraged,” main tank Young-Jin “Gamsu” Noh recalled. “But we learned a lot from the process of losing to them, and beating NYXL and then Vancouver [in the playoffs] were stepping stones for us that contributed to our win today.”
Shanghai was the eighth-seeded team entering the playoffs, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they trampled through the first two rounds. Their weapon of choice was a chaotic triple-DPS comp whose sole purpose is to knock the enemy team around like billiard balls, a strange and wonderful byproduct of both the Stage 3 meta as well as Shanghai’s unique roster flexibility.
In the quarterfinals, the New York Excelsior—one of the Stage 3 Sombra innovators—bent perhaps too far backwards in their attempt to counter Shanghai’s multi-pronged attack, opting to go back to a defensive, D.Va-oriented playstyle that ultimately buckled. In the semifinals, the Vancouver Titans brought out some unique strategies of their own, but even they looked lost by the end, conceding the match on an uncharacteristic C9.
The Shock had been raring for a second rematch against the Titans, but no one can accuse them of being unprepared to face their frequent scrim partners. On the opening map, Oasis, San Francisco trotted out a long-unused DPS lineup to challenge the Dragons head-on, but they always seemed to be a step behind in tempo.
This wasn’t the same Dragons team that snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the stage. For three maps, Jin-Hyeok “Dding” Yang rained from above and Young-Jin “Youngjin” Jin punched from all sides, and Gyeong-Woo “Coma” Son raised the dead in the middle of a war zone. They barreled into the weeds with their Sombra and their Doomfist and their Wrecking Ball, and emerged with a 3-0 lead.
“This was the hardest [stage] final we’ve ever played,” Shock main tank Matthew “Super” DeLisi said afterward. “It was different—no one really plays Doomfist as much as they do. Vancouver, both times we played them we knew what to expect, but I think with Shanghai it was a little bit of an oddball [situation]. We had to adapt more than we did in any of the previous finals.”
The adaptations were drastic by the Shock’s standards, as they dabbled in a bit of everything, from mirroring Shanghai’s Orisa-Roadhog-Pharmercy setup to bringing out a Reaper. Jay “Sinatraa” Won’s Sombra play—specifically the speed of his EMP charges—gave Shanghai fits, while Hyo-Bin “Choihyobin” Choi’s devastating Chain Hook accuracy disrupted the Dragons’ rhythm time and time again. The Shock were able to force Diem, the league’s most fearsome Widowmaker player, off a sniper role and onto Sombra, putting even more pressure onto their vulnerable Pharmercy duo.
The longer this went on, the more the match seemed to be swinging back in San Francisco’s favor. They won Havana easily, then took Ilios after some legitimately heart-stopping teamfights on Ruins. Eichenwalde was almost a formality.
The Shock insisted that their self-belief never wavered, and the runback attests to that. Down 3-0, Super told his team before every subsequent map that they would come back to win. Moth added, “I don’t think there was a second when we were nervous.”
But the longer a match lasts, the more the map pool gets pinched, and it’s that little detail that may have finally helped Shanghai withstand the storm. The Dragons had a choice between Dorado and Watchpoint Gibraltar—both excellent maps for Diem’s Widowmaker, while Dorado’s topography was slightly better for Pharmercy as well. Shanghai picked Dorado, and back on their most comfortable team comp they looked commanding once again, holding San Francisco to a single point on defense.
Just like that: history veered from the unthinkable (Shanghai 4-0) to the absurd (a reverse-sweep) to a resounding THIS JUST HAPPENED as the Dragons finally pushed past the Shock’s defense to secure the victory.
The Shock, after nearly pulling off a heist, were understandably morose in their seats, but they have a lot to be proud of. Like the NYXL in 2018, they managed to reach every single stage finals match, giving them plenty of experience to draw from once the season playoffs start.
As for the Dragons, they now have another example of why they shouldn’t have to bear the burdens of 2018, but that doesn’t mean the individual players and staff weren’t grappling with their own ghosts.
History can be a funny thing—just ask support Sung-Hyeon “Luffy” Yang. He’s lost two grand finals, both times with Kongdoo Panthera, both times after getting to match point. On Sunday, after denying himself a third heartbreak, he said, “I think I’m still in disbelief at this point, because I thought that I would always come in second place and never have a chance to win.”
Luffy and the rest of the ex-Kongdoo core purged their demons by finally becoming champions. And then there’s Gamsu, whose five-year gaming career had never even come close to reaching these heights. “This is my first time winning, and it’s really hard for me to put it into words, but I’m very happy,” he said, beaming from ear to ear.
Now, finally, history feels weightless for the Shanghai Dragons.
I’m loss for words, but I want to thank my teammates, coaches & staff for getting us to this point. Also thank you to fans for always being by our side through this journey. We couldn’t do this without your love and support We win Stage 3 playoffs!!!!! I’m so happy!!!— Gamsu (@GamsuOW) July 14, 2019
Stage 4 gets underway on Thursday, July 25, when the Houston Outlaws (8-13) take on the Paris Eternal (8-13) at 4 p.m. PDT. Watch all 2019 season matches live and on demand on overwatchleague.com, the Overwatch League app, ourTwitch channel, MLG.com, and the MLG app.