Editor's note: This is the second in an ongoing series with Flame that chronicles his return to the main stage and life in America. Read No. 1 here.
The sun outside the Immortals' house in Santa Monica, California, masks the club's gloomy start to the season. After a decent preseason performance at IEM Gyeonggi -- Immortals reached the semifinals before falling to South Korea's Kongdoo Monster in a close 2-1 series -- things seemed bright for the club's new roster. The top lane and jungle combination between Lee "Flame" Ho-jong and Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett, the theorized backbone of the team, was just that in reality, holding their own against a Monster club expected to improve in 2017.
Six matches into its season, Kongdoo is nothing more than a punching bag, losing all six of its matches and picking up a mere two map wins. The hope portrayed in the Immortals' close loss to Kongdoo Monster now looks like fool's gold, and Immortals sit only a few places better than Monster in the North American LCS, having an overall record of 2-4 and having lost six maps in a row. Last year, as a rookie organization, Immortals lost only two matches in the summer split and a lone map in the spring.
This isn't the Immortals you remember.
Flame, sitting inside the LCS Arena's press box after another loss, seems nonplused, however. He smiles, holding a gift basket given to him by one of his many adoring fans that wait for him patiently after every Immortals match, hoping for him to stop and take a personalized selfie with them or accept a bag of goodies. The results haven't been there, but Flame, an optimist, isn't worried.
"I really like North America. The culture, the food. For some reasons, I [prefer] it to [when I played in] China. Sorry, China fans!" Flame said.
It's been tough sledding for Flame in the opening three weeks of the season. On the surface, when it comes to statistics, he's struggled, placing in the lower echelon of most major stats. But watching him play, he's arguably been the second best player on the team behind Dardoch, having some of the bigger performances for his team when they do win. His flexibility when it comes to champion picks has been beneficial; whether it has been tanks, utility champions, split-pushing carries, or whatever his team has needed, Flame has filled in, usually being one of the lower-prioritized members of the team when it comes to the pick/ban phase.
When Immortals did put Flame on a champion he could carry with, Jayce, the team had a neck-and-neck series with Phoenix1, one of the top four teams in the league, almost winning the first game through Flame's split pushing. It took Phoenix1 four Barons and two Elder drakes to eventually put Immortals away, a clutch ultimate from Yoo "Ryu" Sang-ook in the bushes near the Baron pit to capture a game that up until that moment was going Immortals. In the next game, it was a similar scenario with Flame split pushing on Jayce and the team stumbling around him.
That's been the story for Immortals through six matches. When Dardoch and Flame have big games, the bottom lane of Cody Sun and Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung falters. When Eugene "Pobelter" Park has a decent laning phase, Flame and Dardoch bungle a top lane gank and give up two kills.
Other than maybe one game this season, the Immortals team hasn't had all five players having a good game at the same time. In the team's most recent series against FlyQuest, it was the bottom lane that, for all intents and purposes, lost the game in the first five minutes, burning all four summoner spells for a kill against FLY's AD carry Johnny "Altec" Ru and ending with both of them dead. In the next game, it was Dardoch, the most consistent player thus far, making a mistake in the mid lane versus Hai Lam's Zed and letting the snowball to occur in the mid lane.
"We are trying different things so we are ready for playoffs," Flame said, piecing together his already improved English, making sure he gets out what he's trying to convey. The losses aren't making Flame sweat just yet, his attitude still positive, defending his teammates and not pinning any of the defeats on any one player. Despite his reputation as someone hard to work with in South Korea and China, Flame, at least so far, is the model teammate, keeping cool under the pressure that comes with such disappointing losses.
The upcoming week, as dire as it sounds, could be do-or-die for Immortals' season. At 2-4, the team still sits in a playoff spot, but will be playing two clubs, Dignitas (1-5) and Team Liquid (2-4) who will be their main race to the postseason contenders. A pair of wins would put Immortals back in the comfortable position of .500 and allow them some breathing room as the second half of the season approaches; two losses, though, would be disastrous, plummeting the club to a 2-6 record. If they lose four straight, the team will head towards the relegation zone, their playoffs hopes dashed.
"I think Cloud9 is the strongest team, TSM is [strong too], and then there are four or five teams with similar strength," Flame said, peeking down at his bag. When asked what's inside, he rustles through, showing off some Korean food and other goodies that his fan had given him with a smile on his face.
The results haven't been there, but Flame has been doing his best to connect with his new audience in North America. Flame's begun streaming on Twitch and interacting with his audience, although he says it's sometimes a "distraction" from real training, citing why he can't stream all the time. When it comes to the fans in real life, however, he does his best to make time, routinely staying late for fan meets and take a few extra pictures with fans.
Win or lose, he's appreciative of the people who cheer him on.
"I love [my] fans," Flame said. "That's why I'm here."