For most people, the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Chinese Overwatch is probably the Shanghai Dragons' notorious 0-40 record in the Overwatch League's inaugural season. Thus, the announcement that three new Chinese teams will be joining the Season 2 franchise has aroused skepticism among fans, with many wondering if China, as a region, is competitive enough to subvert the 0-40 narrative.
It's a tough question to answer, considering what the Chinese scene has been through in the past year. In the latter half of 2017, things had looked promising, with plenty of young talent on display in the Overwatch Premier Series and APAC 2017. Teams that could potentially challenge the powerhouses of South Korea and North America began to emerge.
Efforts to make the Chinese scene more accessible to Western fans began, with the Overwatch Premier Series being streamed with English casters. In October, the casters even traveled to Shanghai to cast APAC 2017 live. One of these casters was James "Jamerson" Lee, who currently casts North American Contenders.
According to Jamerson, what made the Chinese region unique was that it was a "self-contained system," resulting in a very different and more diverse meta than fans outside of China were used to seeing. "Dive," which had been the dominant composition in other regions for close to a year, wasn't nearly as prevalent in China, a refreshing change for both viewers and casters.
"Most of all, I loved the fact that I got to cast more Doomfist gameplay," Jamerson said. "Western and Korean teams hardly touched him, but [Chinese] players like S1mpfall, Eileen and Leave quickly garnered my attention with their Doomfist play."
Unfortunately, talented individual players weren't enough to save the Chinese scene from hitting its lowest point in late 2017, just before the Overwatch League began. Miraculous Youngster was China's strongest team by far, having proven themselves capable of going toe-to-toe with the strongest Korean teams at the time, but they announced that they would disband on Dec. 6. Another fan favorite, 1246, followed suit just 11 days later. LGD Gaming, recent recipients of the "best team" award at November's Year-End Ceremony hosted in Jiaxing, lost three players and their coach to the Shanghai Dragons and was in the process of recruiting new talent.
"The ecosystem for China wasn't developed enough and the talent was too concentrated when the Overwatch League started up," Jamerson said. "The Chinese competitive scene had to essentially rebuild itself."
With the Shanghai Dragons' disappointing first season, many Chinese fans, players and casters began to feel the strain. Alan Gai, a Chinese Contenders and Overwatch League caster, likened the experience to slogging through a very long winter. However, he's optimistic about future improvement.
"The lessons we've learned from earlier this year have turned into solid experience for further development," Gai said. "Investors and managers of pro teams have adopted a more mature mindset, focusing more on longterm results. Chinese players are more open to global competition, and the fans have become more dedicated to their favorite players and teams."
This desire for betterment has yielded noticeable results. Fans unfamiliar with the Chinese scene were confused when they saw so many unfamiliar names on the roster for the Chinese Overwatch World Cup team, with the only Shanghai Dragons player being Junjian "Sky" He. To those following Chinese Overwatch even tangentially, though, it wasn't a surprise.
While the Shanghai Dragons struggled to find a victory in Los Angeles, local Chinese teams and players showed marked improvement over the first two seasons of Contenders China. World-class talent started to show itself. Formidable players such as main tank Qiulin "Guxue" Xu and flex DPS Shilong "Krystal" Cai began to turn heads, and eventually were selected for the national team.
There's still a ways to go, and the players know this.
When asked about what makes China different from other regions, Guxue replied, "The biggest difference is in the tempo of games. Compared to Korean teams, Chinese teams play more slowly and hesitantly. I think the main reason behind this difference is that Korean teams prioritize coordination more, and with their deeper understanding of the game, they have a more unified mindset."
"Chinese Overwatch teams focus too much on simply imitating others and don't have their own playstyles," Krystal added. "The reason for this is their own lack of confidence."
Despite these concerns, the Chinese World Cup team went on to have a perfect 5-0 record in the Bangkok qualifier, showcasing strict ult discipline and impressive individual mechanics. Although some rudimentary mistakes cost them a few maps, the team finished strong and will play at BlizzCon for the third year in a row.
The growth of the scene is reflected in the way the local fan culture has developed as well. Fans regularly buy their favorite teams' merchandise to support them, and tickets for the Contenders China Season 2 semifinals and finals in Guangzhou sold out within half an hour. With Guangzhou being one of the Overwatch League's expansion teams, this bodes well for the team's local fanbase.
As the Chinese Overwatch League teams build their rosters for Season 2 and Chinese Contenders teams shift their focus to longterm development, the future of the scene looks bright.
"The past is the past, so I prefer to look to the future," Gai said. "I think the next year will be crucial for the Chinese Overwatch scene, especially for its infrastructure. There are countless talented players and staff with incredible potential here. I'm looking forward to seeing a larger number of professionals dedicating themselves to this industry and pursuing their dreams."