Editor's note: This is the first in an ongoing series with Flame chronicling his return to the main stage and life in America.
For a time, four years ago to be exact, Lee "Flame" Ho-jong was the best League of Legends player in the world.
Before the name Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok became synonymous with the title of the game's greatest, Flame, now 24, was the uncontrollable force, the main character of the world's most prestigious League of Legends competition, South Korea's Champions League. He was the ace of perennial contender CJ Entus Blaze, one of the most popular teams in the world. The term "Flame Horizon" was coined by English commentators Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and Erik "DoA" Lonnquist for the Flame's ability to grind his top lane opponents into the ground and assemble an insurmountable CS lead through a mixture of raw strength and creep wave intellect.
While the "Flame Horizon" has remained the same since its inception in 2013, the player it's connected to is not.
The past two years, Flame has been seated on the bench for large periods of time. On his club Longzhu Gaming last year, he didn't even play during the summer split, spending his time climbing to the upper echelons of the Korean Challenger ladder and spamming online games.
"We've found, at least so far, has been that the players most motivated to succeed when they feel like they have something to prove have a chip on their shoulder," Immortals CEO Noah Whinston said. "And there may be no player in the world with more than a chip on their shoulder right now than Flame."
The bench is the loneliest place in esports, especially for someone accustomed to not only being on the field, but being at the center of everything. You practice every day, putting thousands of hours into the game, and when it's time for the bright lights of competition, you're left in the back room, watching on a television.
From his first day as a pro back in 2012 under the ID "Goldtec," to today, sitting at the Immortals house practicing in a corner of the team's scrimmage room, Flame is a player. The past two years, he has watched as a spectator. Now, in America, he's back on center stage, back where he believes he has always belonged.
When speaking to Flame, he does not give off the air of a player nearing the end of his playing days. He speaks with a graceful confidence, almost like making a promise to both his fans and his critics at the same time: Watch me. I'll show you. I'll show you all.
"If the opportunity arises, I want to show you guys whatever [champions] I have in my pocket," he said, smiling. "But I think, most importantly, is I want to focus on winning, so I think I will play whatever my team needs me to play. And [it's] because I'm confident in playing any type of style: carrying, playing tanks or AP tops -- anything."
Besides Flame, the team's expected other half of its offensive one-two punch is Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett, 18, a dynamo on and outside of the Rift with his play and outspoken attitude. One of the best junglers in the league, Dardoch signed a three-year deal with Immortals before the season started, making him one of the longest-contracted players in all of League of Legends. For Immortals to succeed in 2017, the relationship between Flame and Dardoch, a pair that values victory over everything else, will need to be at the forefront of the league.
"My career was looking like I was going to be a team hopper because I started out badly on [Team Liquid]," Dardoch said. "I think being here [with the Immortals] made me kinda change my mentality to how I wanted to improve as a teammate, more so than individually, so I can grow [with] my teammates."
Flame had arrived in Los Angeles only five days ago, and he's already attempting to converse with his team in English. The team is encouraging him to speak up in team discussions and game planning, and Flame wants to do even more to speed up the process, asking for more English tutoring from the club than initially discussed. When asked how his first few days in the Immortals' team house had gone, his first instinct was to answer in English: "I'm so tired now [because of jet lag] ... I like Western food, and the Immortals house -- it's big and good for me."
Although a short, straightforward answer, it tells you all you need to know about the man behind the phrases and KPop looks. It's common for people visiting North America from other countries to be shy about speaking English, especially those from South Korea. It could take months for many South Korean players to feel comfortable enough to answer even the simplest of questions in English. There have even been some who have come to North America, played a year in the United States and will speak primarily in their native language, skirting by with simple English terminology in-game.
"Pobelter," Flame answered when asked who had helped him adjust over the first week. "He's Korean, knows how to speak Korean, and is a solid rock in the mid lane. He helps me a lot, inside of game [or] outside of game, with communicating and everything. For my relationship with Dardoch, he's a very cute kid; he's very young, and I think he listens to me really well, but sometimes in-game ... he doesn't listen sometimes. But I think it's very fixable, and my relationship with [Dardoch] is very good."
Whinston said he talked with some other top laners who prioritized salary and living conditions over everything else, but Flame showed a "fire" within to prove his worth on a domestic scale and international stage. He doesn't say what he's going to do -- he does it, coming into the team with a willingness to adapt, to grow. A veteran of almost five years, Flame is not forcing his teammates and new team to adapt to his old ways. Instead, he's doing the opposite, making himself fit into the strange new environment.
"[Flame is] pretty good," Dardoch said. "He's actually not any of the things that I heard about him. He's not really toxic. He's not really mean to anybody. He actually just wants to win, probably because he spent a lot of time on the bench. I like playing with him, and I've learned a lot from him."
To Flame, comfort is not the feeling of ease -- for him, the greatest comfort in the world is winning.
"I want to be remembered as the player who can't be replaced," Flame said. "An irreplaceable player who can carry any game."