It was probably four years ago when I saw Ho-jong “Flame” Lee for the first time. League’s popularity in Korea at the time was unparalleled, as almost all teenagers played the game, and stadiums were consistently sold out even for run-of-the-mill qualifier matches.
As was usually the case, the stadium was jam-packed with people that day. While flashy spotlights occupied the audience’s attention, the players, who were already used to the spectacle, casually walked across the stage to their gaming booths. In those four years of LCK, countless past legends either retired or faded from people’s memory. Flame was the one I could never forget. With his dashing radiance, it was utterly impossible to overlook him.
To me, he was born to be a star, not only for his boyish good looks, but also for his explosive plays that defied all expectations. After watching him mercilessly dismantle the enemy top laner, I thought to myself, “How far can he go in a few years?”
Four years have passed, and Flame isn’t completely free from the turbulence of the competitive League scene. He has moved from one league to the next, spanning Korea, China, and North America, before finally making Immortals his most recent home. I was able to see him play at the LCS Studio near Santa Monica. He was just as I remembered him but with a deeper and more nuanced gaze.
I followed his footsteps and collaborated with the man himself to fill the blanks in between. This is the result. From his childhood, to his debut, and to the present, this is Flame’s story.
▣ Lacking both a direction in life and the want to have one
When he was a child, Flame’s parents were eager to school him in multiple disciplines, having quite high expectations. One might say those expectations were a bit too much. From a very early age, he participated in a number of sports, played various instruments, and acquired numerous certifications. In fact, he attended a center for gifted children, provided by a local college. That said, his case wasn’t too out of the ordinary, since Korea is a country with immense emphasis on education as a means to success. Flame was an ordinary student in Korea, and just like many other students his age, he would soon enter adolescence, where he would become lost, looking for a purpose.
It’s worth noting that students in Korea endure a punishing amount of schooling throughout the early parts of their lives. At some point, they often stop and wonder, “What good will these classes do for my life?”, and Flame was no exception. Though he was quite knowledgeable with computers and took programming classes from an early age, he wasn’t very interested in becoming a programmer. He went to classes so that he wouldn’t let his parents down, but he knew he had no intention of living a corporate life.
The discrepancy between parental expectations and the desire to carve his own path made the young Flame wander. In high school he would skip class, which often caused his close cousin, whom Flame treated like an older brother, to find Flame and bring him home. As time passed, teachers at his school no longer viewed him favorably. Though his friends liked him, he was far from a perfect student. Flame started playing video games on PC, which he became familiar with when he studied programming. After he failed to get accepted into a college of his choice, he decided to prepare another entrance exam for an additional year, during which he continued gaming.
At some point, his gaming abilities were far ahead of his peers. Actually, he was among the top players, at the same level of popular pro gamers of that era. Then he received an offer from Azubu (later to be renamed to CJ Entus), one of the best teams at the time. In the tryout, he was pitted against the seemingly invincible Ambition in a 1v1 and showed off his determination to win by intentionally staying at the base to buy one more potion before the first wave. In the end, he joined Azubu to start his career.
▣ Established as the best top laner in just two seasons
In the 2012 IPL5, Flame got his debut match but failed to impress. It was at the LCK Winter that followed where he slowly showed his true colors. He characteristically dominated enemy top laners and began to leave a deep impression in people’s minds.
That isn’t to say Flame was an impeccable player in that winter season. From time to time, he would make some of the most baffling mistakes like buying two Phages in a game against KT Bullets (he explained later that he felt the need to have at least two Phages because the enemy Olaf wielded two axes). All in all, he was still a player in the making.
However, the next season was a different story. Before the 2013 LCK Spring began, Shy, the top laner of Flame’s sister team, remarked, “I predict us winning the spring solely based on Flame’s skills.” And the prediction looked to be coming true — until the grand finals.
In that particular season, Flame had no competition. His signature laning prowess was at an all-time high, complemented by the wide champion pool spanning from Kennen and Akali, who had never appeared in LCK, to Diana and Jayce. After seeing how he terrorized the Rift by bullying the enemy top laners and masterfully initiating teamfights, I couldn’t help but agree that the best top laner would look something like him.
▣ Born to be aggressive and insane practice hours to back it up
There are two aspects in which Flame was able to set himself apart from the rest of the pack: his aggression and immense amount of practice hours. Luckily for him, the meta at the time was well-suited to his playstyle. Aggressive top lane champions that could outmuscle the opponent in lane and engage deep into the enemy team to wreck havoc were highly favored. Flame fit the bill perfectly as he was second to none in the aggression department, with a natural-born fighter’s instinct and the prowess to hunt down the first opponent he saw.
His mind was always calculating when and where he could stack kills, and he did not hesitate to crush his foes whenever he saw an opening. Those who got burned by Flame’s hyper aggression had no choice but to cower in fear, as evidenced by the CS advantages he would regularly enjoy in top lane.
Mid laners usually require a precise understanding of how much damage they and their enemies can dish out because mid lane skirmishes are a battle of cold logic with winners and losers being decided solely on whoever errs first. Top laner battles are different, though. What they need above anything else is confidence and guts. At the slightest hint of weakness, the scale of top lane dominance tilts. Flame had the best of both worlds — an unflinching brawler disposition and an uncanny eye for kill potential.
Granted, natural talents will only take you so far. One of the reasons Flame is highly regarded to this date is the sheer amount of practice and theorycrafting hours he has under his belt. Whether it’s during a season or off-season, he always carried around his handy notebook to write down everything he needed to improve. If you’re one of the top solo queue players, you’re likely to have received a personal message from Flame asking for strategies and tips. To himself, he was a perpetual work-in-progress and even had people replicate the exact runes and masteries of the opponent in the next matchup when he asked for a practice.
Though he suffered a defeat from Samsung Galaxy in the LCK spring grand finals that year, Flame was quickly becoming the face for CJ Entus, not only because of his handsome looks but because of his gaming talents as well.
For some time, Flame maintained his form. Dubbed as the “esports historian”, Duncan “Thorin” Shields even referred to Flame as the “top laner’s dream”. One of the nicknames he earned at the time was the “Pilot”. In Korean communities, players who carry teams were often called “bus drivers” for they don’t require passengers to do any work in steering the way. Being called a Pilot goes to show that Flame was beyond the bumpy ride of a boring bus and was flying the path of a smooth plane at blinding speeds.
▣ Meta shifts and the inevitable end of a long reign
Though it seemed like Flame would continue to reign over the top lane, he did fall on hard times. After playing against him for two years in 2013 and 2014, LCK top laners completely familiarized themselves with his playstyle. They were still afraid of him in the laning phase, but came up with a tailored solution — play passively and deal with him later as a team.
To make matters worse, the meta became unfavorable for Flame. Top laners were no longer able to feed well and outmuscle the opponent in the later stages because frequent lane swaps kept dominant top champions in check. At the same time, teams preferred more defensive top champions over Flame’s more aggressive ones. Gone were the days when top laners would be the first ones to break through the enemy line. Instead, they became more or less meat shields to take the brunt of the enemy fire, and Flame’s playstyle subsequently lost its flair.
By the end of 2014, Flame stepped down from the CJ Entus roster and looked for new opportunities at LGD in China. Sure enough, he kept the form worthy of his name overseas, playing a pivotal role in qualifying for Worlds, but Flame’s play wasn’t the same domineering performance people came to know and love.
Most people understandably agreed that Flame’s era had come and gone when he played in China. He admitted to having a difficult time adjusting to the country and returned to LCK after a year abroad, beginning in Longzhu. However, his one-year absence from LCK didn’t make it any easier. He had to compete for the starting spot with Expession and did not exactly deliver a memorable performance when he got the chance.
Before he came back to Korea from China, Flame said the following in an interview with Inven.
“It’s been a while since I’ve lost interest and passion for gaming itself. I think I was only able to play as hard as before because of the fans’ support. I’m not merely playing for fun these days, but I feel the weight of responsibility. The fans’ support and love made me who I am today. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Perhaps, those who expected the old Flame were a little let down by his remark since he was no longer the player whose passion and competitive spirit pushed him to experiment and improve. That was the end of 2015 and his age was 23.
▣ Reflections and a new start in NA
“I don’t think I improved much since leaving CJ Entus. I’ve known for a long time that there was a problem, but I neither knew what to do nor had someone to mentor me. I was trying to make due with what I had and only barely kept my head above water.”
He was well aware of his own problems. When he was struggling, people often mocked him for being preoccupied with wet noodle fights in top lane. When I mentioned it to him, he didn’t disagree.
“When I was at my peak, I could sense other players revering me. As soon as I started enjoying the spotlight, I think that’s where it went all wrong. I became arrogant without any mental fortitude to keep me in the game. Looking back at it now, I think it had quite a negative impact on my career.
I didn’t understand the value of sacrifice and teamplay. I was full of pride based on my knowledge and skills about the game. When the top-driven meta ended, I should have let go of my ego and adapted to play as a part of the team. That’s what I lacked the most.”
His move to Immortals was followed by these regrets. He didn’t completely abandon his old playstyle, though. Hyper aggression and precise execution defined Flame. What was different was that he fully understood his shortcomings and worked to minimize those ever since he transferred to Immortals.
After playing for a season of LCS, Flame has perfectly blended with the team. Though the team was near the bottom at 7th place, his performance steadily improved. Then in the summer split, he turned a new leaf as aggressive top champions once again fit the meta, unlike with the previous split. Immortals currently stands at 7-1 (at the time of writing) in the first four weeks of the summer.
Additionally, he’s come a long way in terms of teamplay aspects. When asked what he practiced the most, Flame replied, “I’m focusing on sacrificing myself while giving more weight to the bot lane to close games. Xmithie is an incredible player, and our bot duo knows how to make games. For them to shine, there will naturally be less emphasis on the top lane. I’m learning to bide my time and avoid confrontations for the greater good.”
This doesn’t change the fact that he’s still very much Flame. His will to win is alive and well. One might say he’s more deliberate and purposeful in his pursuit for competition. On the day of the interview, he just took down Dignitas 2-1 in a reverse sweep and decisively defeated CLG 2-0 the day before. As if that wasn’t enough, Flame confessed to losing sleep over the things he could have done better in the game against CLG. To be clear, he wasn’t blaming anyone. He was blaming himself because he knows he is capable of much more.
▣ Where will we see Flame in the future?
It’s been four years since I first saw him in Seoul, Korea. He led a different life than I imagined, but I don’t think it was in vain. He peaked early, and the fall from grace was a painful one. From LPL, LCK, and to NA LCS, he’s ready to fly again. Starting over with his name alone, Flame intends to light a fire in the league.
This year’s Flame is a different player. The Flame that would crush enemy top laners, single-handedly carry the team, and bask in the limelight at the expense of teammates is long gone. He’s learned the value of teamwork and sacrifice and is ready to take on the role of the reliable shield.
In some ways, he may be taking his first step towards becoming a more wholesome player. Frankly speaking, he has been only half the player he could have been but became prominent because various factors, including meta at the time, created the optimal ground for his success. As the meta inevitably changed, so did he. What he lost in unbridled aggression at the cost of everything else, he gained in coordination and macro control. He’s turning 25 this year, which makes him a veteran by pro League standards. He’ll compete against younger, budding talents and evolve as a player in order to match any opponent.
As I was finishing off the interview, I wondered where he will be in a few years. The version of Flame I met in Los Angeles was a bit different than the one I remembered from four years ago, but I was still able to sense the indescribable radiance that grounded him. It could have been confidence or competitive spirit. We left the stadium and said our farewells. Though he had been in the scene for a considerable amount of time, the way he minded his manners like a fresh recruit reassured me that the old Flame was still there. It’ll be interesting to meet him again in another four years.
Hope you enjoyed our third installment of Legend History on Flame. Please comment on which player you’d like see covered next and why. Your inputs are greatly appreciated for our next piece.
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