2020 was a year where many pro gamers, who dominated an era of LoL esports, retired. Aging hits pro gamers heavily as their careers are quite shorter compared to others.
Lee “Flame” Ho-jong kept changing and evolving as he added years to his career. In his early twenties, Flame had full faith in his own prowess and longed for victory more than anybody else. With time passing, he experienced frustration and sought to improve. He said that he had to face bias and pressure towards aging when he finally looked around.
But Flame still wanted to grow. Although he has retired as a pro gamer, he wants to grow as Lee Ho-jong, be a “cool person”. In his interview with Inven, Flame was quite honest, reminiscing bitter past experience, while expressing determination to fight through them.
Adventurer Flame: Life after retirement
You announced retirement through your stream. How have you been after the announcement?
Actually, I’ve been active without much thought, shooting advertisements, attending events. I have this thing where I have to make results whatever I do. It does feel comfortable, though, that I could let go of the social things that I had to do when I was in a team. At the same time, it’s different that I have to make my own choices and be responsible for them.
When you announced your retirement through your stream, you went to the bathroom for a long time, maybe because you were too choked up?
I was just talking with the viewers like usual, comfortably. When I said that I was making an important announcement, the viewers were joking around. But when I was about to actually say the words, it made me choke up. So I went to the bathroom. Come to think of it, I should have recorded myself choking up to upload on Youtube [Laughs].
Every year, you said that you want to play more and are looking for a team. How did you end up retiring this time?
In the past 2-3 years, many new prospects came up and veterans got replaced. In the LoL esports scene, it has been well-proven that younger players play better than older ones. Even last year, there weren’t that many offers to me, even though I maintained a high rank on solo queue and showed good performances whenever I played. What’s more, LCK became franchised and teams were looking for players that could be with the team for a long time — I thought that would have a negative effect on me. There’s also this pressure that older players have to always perform well. They fall into a critical situation when they don’t perform well a few times. That put a lot of pressure on me so I didn’t search for teams as actively this year around.
"I’ve worked hard in an intense society for nine years, and I was kind of exhausted from all the competition."
Originally, I was going to just rest and do nothing after I retired. I’ve worked hard in an intense society for nine years, and I was kind of exhausted from all the competition. I wanted to live an enjoyable life, doing things I like, rather than compete all the time. But after spending a week that way, I started to want to do new things. With that will, I started streaming and doing Youtube. Thankfully, DAMWON Gaming looked after me a lot. The CEO sent the DAMWON Youtube editor for me and I got a lot of help from other staff members as well.
That way, I started streaming and I felt that people pay attention and love me. I felt streaming interesting and it got bigger so I continued to stream.
Flame of 2013
Let’s go back to your prime. Many people still bring up the spring season of 2013. Looking back, how was it?
At the start, there was a student who knew nothing but games, someone who had zero experience in the real world. I really liked playing games, and since I was good at it, I was able to join the best team at that time. I really got a lot of attention and love from the fans in CJ Blaze. We won a lot of domestic competitions, but another team won Worlds. When the winners of the World Championship were chosen as the best players by position, I was chosen as the best top laner among them. I think I was really lucky.
Like your nickname, people say that your passion was really flaming. It is said that you held on to all the LoL masters to study laning or champion counters.
I was extremely competitive. I did all that because I really hated to lose. In a way, I was a pro gamer looking only right in front of me. My mindset was that I must not lose to the opponent top laner in my next match. That way, I lived life day by day. I even pestered my teammates or people around me all day in that process. I asked them to play 1v1 with me or help me practice a lot. To LoL one-trick masters, top-Elo solo queue players… I did anything that’s possible that’s allowed by the rules. I was really fired up with practice.
"People around me felt sorry for me that I didn’t even meet my family or friends and just played games."
Looking back at this point, it was a bit too much. People around me felt sorry for me that I didn’t even meet my family or friends and just played games. This could be good in the short term, but in the long run, I think it was a bad direction. Even if I were to work hard, how would it have been if I spared some time for my mentality or stamina? As much as I tried to do everything so urgently, I was mostly edgy and sensitive so I had trouble communicating with my teammates. If I got along with them better, since LoL is a team game, the synergy would have been better and that would have led to better results. My teammates struggled a lot playing with me.
As much as you worked that hard, you must have been quite frustrated when the results didn’t follow.
There were a lot of frustrations. I even cried myself out sometimes. Until 2014, all I did was play the game. I got exhausted with myself and I thought I wanted to have new experiences as well. At the end of the season, I fell into a slump and didn’t practice as much. That made the team’s results falter since I was the team’s ace and I was shaky. When we lost because of me at the regional qualifiers, a lot of emotions went through me. I cried a lot as soon as I arrived at the team house, with my head on my desk.
"As the thought that my underperforming caused our elimination hit me, I wasn’t able to endure that I let everyone down."
I had been telling myself, let’s play well — I requested so many things from them. I tried to set a good example and I did quite well in terms of performance during the season. But as the thought that my underperforming caused our elimination hit me, I wasn’t able to endure that I let everyone down. I was disappointed with myself because I didn’t live up to my own standards and I was ashamed of myself. I was a perfectionist, and I wasn’t able to completely overcome that shock back then. I left CJ emotionally and I went from one team to another at that point. I went to the LPL to join LGD, won the championship, and reached Worlds there, but it was really hard for me there as well. I even thought that I wouldn’t be able to pursue a career as a pro gamer.
It sounds like you were really shocked. How were you able to continue as a pro gamer?
There were several reasons. The biggest thing was the fans’ support and cheers. I also wanted to become an irreplaceable pro gamer and play for a long time.
"When I first thought of retiring, the public didn’t think that positively about pro gamers. So I wanted to become like a mascot of esports..."
Furthermore, I thought that I should grow into a person that could spread positive effects socially by the time I retire. When I first thought of retiring, the public didn’t think that positively about pro gamers. So I wanted to become like a mascot of esports — being a model pro gamer from mindset to life, social activities, and have a healthy image. I wanted to show the public that esports is good. I postponed my retirement to reach these standards.
Reality after stepping down from starting lineup
You moved through several teams after that. After LGD, you came back to the LCK, and then headed to NA and joined Immortals. How did you decide that?
I came 1st and 2nd in regional competitions, but I didn’t have any clear results at the World Championship. I gave a lot of thought to how I would be able to get good results at Worlds. Even if it meant that I had to reduce my salary, I chose the team that had what I envisioned. It’s hard to join a team when my position is unstable, so I joined one that I could really show my value. And then, the next standard was a team that could aim for the league championship and Worlds. I moved for three years with that plan. My ultimate goal was to win Worlds… I guess I kind of reached that goal. What was different from my plan was that I wasn’t able to maintain my performance to win Worlds. Everyone has a plan, but not everything goes as planned [Laughs].
While you were in LGD and Longzhu Gaming, you weren’t always the starter. You were one of the best top laners once, but how did you feel when you had to step back?
When I was in LGD and Longzhu Gaming… The biggest reason was because of my personality. I lacked much in social life and was immature. I had to yield in some areas, cooperate, and communicate with my teammates, but I didn’t. When you have something that you lack, you can learn things from others to improve as a human being. I was slow in that matter. It’s regretful that I realized this late.
In the early days of my career, I was really stubborn so I didn’t listen to other people. One of my coaches even asked me if I grew up in a foreign country [Laughs]. I was an only child at home, so before I became a pro gamer, I spent a lot of time alone. I didn’t know that I lacked many things. It took me a long time to realize that my teammates at CJ Blaze and coach Kezman treated me really nicely.
"My pride was quite hurt after going through many different situations. I even said that I won’t play when they asked me to play."
CJ was a unique situation — after that, I had trouble more frequently. My pride was quite hurt after going through many different situations. I even said that I won’t play when they asked me to play. Looking back, I was really immature. Back then, I just thought everything would be okay if I just played well, but I found out other things are important too.
There’s a fable called, “The North Wind and the Sun”. Before, I thought hard wind could take off the man’s coat — I just thought I needed to improve my performance. The truth is that what takes the man’s coat off is the sun.
You used to be the “pilot” who carries the team. You gained consistency and stability in Immortals.
I learned a lot during Immortals. Before that, I used to play selfishly and wanted to carry all the time. I started to play the team game in Immortals. I listened to other people’s opinions and tried to learn their strong attributes. I felt that I was the problem after going through my failures in LGD and Longzhu. When I started to play the team game like that, the results got better.
You often thanked Kezman and SSONG as well.
When I was in CJ, Kezman listened to me a lot. He understood me and took care of me with love. He tried to change me by loving me without conditions.
In Immortals, SSONG improved what I lacked. I was still confident with my own performance and making shotcalls. At the same time, I had spaces to fill as the only top laner on the roster. SSONG taught me to get along with my teammates well in and out of the game. I learned a lot.
After leaving the LCS, you returned to Korea and joined DAMWON Gaming. You were the starter in a lot of the games in the first year.
I think my performance was quite good then. What was difficult was my age and the image I gained because of my age. People said that I wasn’t as good because I was old. In many people’s eyes, I was just a washed-up has-been. As much as people thought that, when we won against SKT T1 with my performance, I received a lot of attention and turned the tables on people who were criticizing me. People outside could think of me negatively, but it hurt that people within also didn’t recognize me as I am, even if I thought I was playing quite well.
Generation shift from CJ to DAMWON
When you continued on as a pro gamer, the symbols of CJ like Madlife, Shy, or Ambition retired.
In my first year of Immortals and DAMWON, I was pretty good. My pro gaming career was quite long, and I was proud of myself that I lasted a long time working hard doing what I like.
But looking back, I think I was too nearsighted. As there are more and more players that retire, there are many former pro gamers that stream. Those people who retired early joined the streaming scene when it was a blue ocean. You never know what happens in the world. Every choice has a pro and con. I’m satisfied that I did what I wanted to do.
Former pro gamers are active as streamers after their retirement. When did you think that you’d become a streamer?
My popularity was the highest during 2013-14. I thought from that point that I should brand myself well by extending my career well. That was the year that I decided to become a streamer. I didn’t think of attempting anything else while I was a pro gamer. Many people liked me, and since I like all the attention, I decided to stream.
On the other hand, how did it feel watching the next generation top laners like Nuguri or Khan grow?
They all work hard and are great players. Khan has great socializing skills, and he’s really fun to be around. He has an image of being short-tempered, but he’s open to learning. I think he’s a great player. It was fun streaming with him recently.
Nuguri really works hard as if gaming is all there is to life. He says that he saves time by maintaining a “gaming hairstyle”... [Laughs] He watches his own replays, obviously, and even watches all these other people’s plays too. He really does his best. It was a great time being with him, and I’m thankful for that.
Watching these guys, I thought that I should listen to what others say and become a better person. I want to learn and improve more.
Streamer Lee Ho-jong still wants to improve
It seems that you’re comfortable streaming and enjoying it.
When I was a pro player, I was kind of obsessed that I needed to show only good and cool performances. But after I started streaming in DAMWON, I let go of many things and tried to enjoy it. There was a possibility that I could become a streamer within DAMWON, so they asked me to watch out for my own image. I held back a bit, but now, I’ll be streaming as myself. That way, I could be a streamer for a long time.
When you streamed with Ambition, it seemed that you two are really close.
After I left CJ, we contacted each other very often and stayed close. We talked about many things from our struggles or good things as well. After that, Ambition got married. When people get married, like CloudTemplar, Kezman, or Mystic, they get really busy. I talk to Ambition from time to time, and I got a lot of help from him recently. I’m really thankful.
On your first day of streaming, you streamed with CloudTemplar and people said that you chose the wrong job. It seems that you get really tense when you stream.
Some people say that my tension is too low. Right now, I think it’s a transition period where I try everything. It’s not time to fixate my streaming style — I’m just doing my best to stream as I am.
When you invite guests, you look like you’re close with them. Do you approach others first?
I talked with both Khan and Mystic for the first time on a streaming day. I am quite good at approaching others. If you felt that, it seems that I was quite alright having guests on stream. Obviously, it was possible because my guests did well on the stream. I try to aim the spotlight on the guests rather than to show myself off. I hope they get better evaluations after my stream.
As you mentioned earlier, there are many ex-pros turned streamers. What would be unique about your streams?
I do agree that there should be something unique of my own. Right now, my appearance? Sorry. [Laughs] In the future, I’ll get many different people and cover a lot of content. I want to make it interesting, professional, and communicative. I’ll try to make a stream that only I can produce.
First, I’d like to show my professionalism through streaming the LCK and making previews. Then early in the season, some ranked play, showing that I could hit Challenger with no sweat. A stream where viewers could communicate comfortably with me, having guests from different jobs — not only pro gamers — and create a variety program.
Any last comments to fans that remember Flame and cheer for you?
I spent almost my whole twenties and was active as a pro gamer. I had good results and played in several different regions. It would have been hard to cheer for me since there were a lot of ups and downs, but there were fans who cheered for me all through that. Some of them still watch my streams or Youtube. I received a lot of love and attention through everything — something I would have never received if I was just a normal person Lee Ho-jong. Thanks to you, I felt that I’m a person who’s worth loving and felt that I can look at myself positively.
I didn’t do anything for the fans up to now; it was all receiving. I’d like to repay for all that love and attention through spreading positive influence to the public. I’ll show that through my Twitch stream or Youtube in the future. Thank you.