If you would call yourself a fan of a player then perhaps you might imagine the worst case scenario would be for that player to play on a losing team and thus have few opportunities to succeed. That is if he didn’t retire entirely or fail to get onto a professional team. I can tell you, though, that a much worse fate is to watch your favourite player still capable of productive play but benched behind another in the starting line-up and given chances to see action only rarely. Such has been my toil in following the career of Lee “Flame” Ho-jong.
Flame has been among the leading candidates for my favourite League of Legends player, from of a very select group of players throughout history, ever since his career peak as the best Top laner in the world, and perhaps the best player in the world, in early 2013. Despite him having played in every season of the game since, my experience following his career has been marred by a series of unfortunate circumstances which have seen one of the game’s greats repeatedly side-lined from play, where other outcomes were available.
Baptism of fire
Tasked with replacing Top lane god Reapered in Blaze, Flame understandably had teething problems. After initially stumbling at IPL5, Flame quickly asserted himself as a strong individual player upon returning to Korea. By OGN Spring 2013 he was not just the best Top laner in the world, smashing opponents in lane and dominating team-fights with his Kennan or Diana, but even a strong contender for best player in the world, the primary star of the best Korean team – on a streak of unbroken victories which eventually hit double digits – and with Faker still navigating his rookie split.
The experience of watching this player was near impossible to pick holes in. He routinely dominated the laning phase, with his team even famously playing to activate that strength and push it to its limit, and was one of the best team-fighters in history – both hallmarks of his play which retain some essence in his skillset to this day. Here was the worthy heir to lineage of great Korean Top lane carries, stemming from woong; MaKNooN and Reapered to now Shy and Flame.
Blaze being swept in an upset in the OGN final was a setback, but it seemed for all the world they would be back and in heavy contention for the very next title. In fact, that would be the last time Flame found himself in such a position and thus I, as a spectator. By the summer, Blaze had seen their botlane degenerate even further and the rise of SKT and KT had culminated in teams who surpassed the power of Blaze. KT, in particular, would be a thorn in their side in every play-off meeting.
A second crack
After Worlds, which Blaze failed to qualify for, the team was reformulated as what was dubbed “neo-Blaze”, bringing in Jungler Daydream and ADC Emperor. This transfusion of new blood from Xenics provided pieces which could again enable Blaze to contend for the title. They won the WCG Korean qualifier, WCG itself, again fell to KT in the play-offs and headed into 2014 as one of the better Korean teams once more. Their Spring performance, besting future champions KT Arrows and taking both NaJin Shield and Samsung Ozone, two of the three best Korean teams, to five game series boded well for my favourite Top laner.
Sure, the meta was decidedly unsatisfying, as gone were the AP carries which allowed Top laners to truly carry and now they were forced to choose between boring tanks like Dr. Mundo and bruisers like Renekton and Shyvana. In spite of such limitations, Flame played these champions as if his lane was still the most important, gained his advantages – more slight than before, to be sure – and transferred his edges to team-fights in a more diluted version of the previous year. Little could I have known this would mark the end of Flame as a contender for best Top laner in the world.
The summer saw Blaze deteriorate entirely, as Ambition – long a decaying great – crumbled ever more and substituting Support player Lustboy out proved questionable. Blaze failed to make the play-offs of OGN Champions for the first time in history, robbing me of a minimum of one more play-off series to watch. Still, here was one of the best Top laners in Korea and he still played for a prestigious organisation, so surely next split could see another reformulating of the Blaze blueprint, a la neo-Blaze, right?
Head to head
The end of Season 4 marked not just the end of that Blaze core, but the end of sister teams entirely, at Riot’s demand. When CJ Entus were picking over which of their players to keep and which to jetisson, many would have assumed Flame was the clear choice for the starting Top laner. In fact, he had slacked off in his legendary dedication during the summer and so the organisation went with the less stellar but still consistent Shy as their starter.
The Korean exodus was underway and Flame decided to join the party late, left to choose between some hefty offers – approaching a million dollars – to play for a number of different teams. One was a team in the second league of Chinese LoL, but Flame instead opted to go to LGD Gaming, who not only had spent heavily to acquire talent but had already signed Acorn.
Acorn was not just an OGN champion, two time OGN finalist and Worlds semi-finalist the previous year. The former Samsung Blue Top laner had accomplished such feats as one of the best tank players in the world and had even shown a flair for the occasional carry performance himself. “Flame must be very driven and confident to think he can secure the starting role”, thought I, seeing the obvious danger of competing for a position with a player already considered by many to be superior and at the very style of Top lane play which went counter to Flame’s reputation.
With LGD also having reigning World champion ADC imp in their botlane, their star Chinese talent being Mid laner we1less and the Jungler being their worst player, it was difficult to be truly optimistic Flame would see heavy playing time. Such fears proved appropriate, as the Spring split of the LPL saw Flame playing half of the games, but most resulting in more losses than when Acorn was played. As if to irritate me personally, Flame was bizarrely forced to play tanks and bruisers, while Acorn ran the gammut of Top lane champions and frequently got to not only play carries, but those – as in the case of Kennan – that Flame himself was famed for.
LGD were a game from winning the Spring split, but with Acorn playing the vast majority of the play-off matches. The rotation had been healthy during the split, but by play-offs the team had made clear their preference in starting Top laner.
In the Summer split, a break in the fog saw Flame playing more games and both playing at a strong level individually, having repaid the favour by showing mastery on champions like Rumble – Acorn’s own signature – and with LGD winning many of the games in question. Unfortunately, as the split went on LGD had issues with their coaching staff and ended up in the bizarre scenario of Acorn himself essentially coaching the team. Unsurprisingly, Acorn selected himself to play as the starter.
LGD won the LPL this time, but Flame against saw limited playing time in the play-offs, when it mattered. The team went to Worlds, Flame’s first ever qualification, and massively underwhelmed by going 0:3 in week one, despite being a pre-tournament favourite. Flame was inserted with the team all but eliminated and managed to help carry two games, beating TSM and Origen, but unable to complete the miracle of taking the team to a tie-breaker scenario.
Still, a strong Summer performance and some good games in his first Worlds had inspired in me some hope that perhaps he would return to Korea and join one of the better teams again.
The lost year
Indeed, Flame trialed for SK Telecom, as the reigning world champions had lost Top laner MaRin, but the team went with former NaJin Top laner and league MVP Duke instead. Flame would join Longzhu, who had shelled out a lot of money for enough talent to make two LCK level line-ups. Flame’s competition for Top lane was Expession, now a name being brought back from the wilderness, but once considered one of the best players at his position in Korea, albeit – and perhaps fittingly – back in Season 3.
Despite some strong games on Gangplank, Flame was unable to win the starting spot and saw it again go to his rival. The year would end up being a write-off for me, as the summer saw Flame practically fade into the background like Marty McFly’s siblings in Back to the Future. Perhaps this was the end.
Legends never die
Ever since the Korean exodus had occurred, rumours had swirled that perhaps Flame would follow in the footsteps of players like Piglet and Ryu and go West to the LCS. For Season 7, that would indeed be the case, as the former Blaze star signed with Immortals. As the team also featured troubled but talented domestic Jungle star Dardoch, my expectations were to at least see the Top lane fed with ganks and a chance to see how well a Korean Top laner could carry in the NA LCS.
This first split was a mixed bag in that regard. The team did not always play through Flame’s lane and yet opponents typically focused it, knowing an obvious disconnect in communication would be between a Korean Top laner and his American Jungler. When Dardoch was traded for Xmithie for the summer split, it was difficult to know what to imagine would change. Elsewhere in the team, Cody Sun began to show more promising signs and the team took off and would heat up until they were powering through the play-offs to an eventual runners-up finish.
A fly way
As if to further emphasise the equisite torture chance and circumstance have bestowed upon my experience of following Flame’s career, IMT was about to lose their LCS spot entirely. Despite being one of the best teams in the league, with Flame as one of the best Top laners, and with many awaiting a chance to see them play another split, that IMT line-up would never play another game. The organisation were not accepted into the franchising era of LCS and were thus forced to sell off their players.
While three members went to Team Liquid and formed a new dynasty there, Flame found himself on FlyQuest. Not an organisation with any history of greatness or real expectations of being champions, but rather an assorted of good and unproven players, seeking some elusive chemistry which would elevate them into a meaningful team. Neither split saw this group able to perform such transmutational alchemy, remaining as a mixture of players who collectively did not amount to much of a threat to the top teams in the LCS. Nonetheless, this year saw full playing time for Flame and for a second straight year, so the disappointments of LGD and Longzhu were pushed further into the past.
Fly away home
Then again classic Flame off-season began. This time around, the elves in charge of organising and manipulating our reality saw fit to leave Flame team-less for the first time in his career. He did not re-sign with FlyQuest and CLG chose not to pay the higher-than-comfortable-for-them price required to put Flame in their jersey. Naively, Flame had played the waiting game in the off-season and found himself without many potential destinations and then saw those destinations themselves closed off. Again, the end for one of the game’s greats seemed to loom large.
Out of nowhere, it was announced this week that Flame had joined DAMWON Gaming of the LCK. This team, famed for their scrim reputation as a result of helping Western teams at Worlds, was hovering around the middle of the LCK table. The immediate red flag was that DAMWON’s best player, in many’s eyes, was Nuguri, their Top laner and a rookie known to favour carry champions and the according playing style that comes with them. Surely Flame was yet again destined to be the bench player, gaining occasional playing time and expected to excel such in those rare opportunities that it demanded he be promoted, else the pine would again be awaiting him soon enough.
Apparently DAMWON had good reason to bring Flame in, though. The logic internally went something like that since opposing teams understood this win condition for DAMWON, they were targeting Nuguri and he was not always able to hold up under such pressure. Flame was a player who had played most of his career under such circumstances, renown for his ability to avoid ganks and survive 1v2 scenarios.
This has been seen already in Flame’s first appearance for the team, as they brought him in against a star-studded SK Telecom side which are the second best team in Korea right now. Taking over from Nuguri after the loss of game one, Flame was present for DAMWON’s two victories which allowed them to take the series, with the Top lane legend making a critical baron steal play on urgot to help decide the third game.
Redemption or deja vu?
Will Flame at last win the starting spot in a legitimate battle for his role? For now, I can be grateful simply to see him play again in one of the strongest leagues in the world and for one of the better teams, all things considered. I’ve learned that nothing comes easy in the career of Flame, nor for those watching it intently.