Lee "Flame" Ho-jong was not happy with his first split in the North American League Championship Series. What was supposed to be his first step toward regaining his place as one of the most revered players in the top lane position turned out to be three steps back. Flame's first season on Immortals could be summed up in one word: disjointed.
While he remained mature throughout the spring split -- never singling out a teammate for the squad's overall lukewarm play -- his play inside the game left a lot to be desired. Although there were games where he resembled the player that was in the debate for not only the best top laner in the world -- but best player period -- in early 2013, more than often than not, he seemed to be a player on an island, not knowing how to link up with his teammates to create the optimal play. By the end of the split, the team was drifting apart, failing to make playoffs the first time in club history.
Flame, a former superstar, was left floundering near the bottom of all positive stat categories at his position.
Spring was not a season of rebirth. It was a season of turmoil, and at its worst, chaos.
"When I first came to North America for the first time, I had a lot of confidence about [my] game," said Flame, now sitting on the second floor of the LCS Arena in Santa Monica, Calif. "But I was not so good and we weren't good in the spring season. I felt bad. I tried hard [in the offseason] and we've had changes, like our new Korean coach [Kim "SSONG" Sang-soo], and that's made us better."
The regular season is long, nine weeks to be exact, and one week won't erase the faults of last spring. But Flame couldn't have had a better showing in Immortals' first games of the summer split. A loner in his first season with Immortals, he now smiles with the team outside the game.
So far, Flame has played as an integral part of the team in the first two matches of the season. While he would make fundamental mistakes in the spring with his teleports -- arriving in a few seconds too early or too late -- his coordination with his team against last season's third and first-place teams, Phoenix1 and Team SoloMid, were on point. When Flame made a mistake in the first week of summer, he didn't let it get to him. After the opening game of the split (the only one IMT would drop all weekend), where Flame's Jarvan IV resembled the uncoordinated Flame of last season, he came into the next game with the mindset of a former champion: don't shy away from the pressure, thrive in the pressure. Attack, and don't let one game define you.
Over the next four games, Flame would only die once in a string of wins for Immortals, currently atop of the NA LCS standings with two match victories. After the game, he smiled, happy with his teammates and fans, but this time it was different. He wasn't only happy about his team -- he was happy about himself. Through hard work in constant English lessons and help from the staff around him, he finally felt like the old Flame -- the Flame circa 2013-2014, an inspiration to top laners around the world.
SSONG, a former assistant coach on the legendary ROX Tigers team that almost usurped SK Telecom T1 in last year's Worlds semifinals, could be the one to bring that Flame back into existence.
This time, in North America.
"[SSONG] is very cold with emotions," said Flame. "He doesn't have emotion when it comes to business. He's really good at his work. He's very [direct]."
Since moving away from CJ Entus Blaze at the end of the 2014 competitive year, Flame hasn't had a coach as respected or as business-like as SSONG. Even though he played for Longzhu in the 2016 LCK, the coaching staff was pointed out as one of the weak spots of the team. Coincidentally, SSONG became the strategic coach of Longzhu for a short time in the spring of this year, helping the team move in the right direction for the first time in a long time before leaving the club shortly after due to personal reasons. The team reverted back to poor play right when he departed.
With SSONG, Flame has a coach that he can speak to in his mother tongue, a coach that is no stranger to working with elite top laners. When SSONG was a player, he was teammates with legendary top laner Yoon "MakNooN" Ha-woon on NaJin Sword, and as he transitioned into a coaching role, he watched over the development of superstar top laner Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho. He knows about teams with top laners being a focal point, and if Flame can be consistent and build upon his 11.3 KDA opening round of the season, it'll be another team where SSONG can build around a pillar.
In the jungle, though, is another new face. At the start of the 2017 year, Immortals was supposed to be a one-two punch between Flame and Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett, the latter now on Counter Logic Gaming. Flame and Dardoch had some chemistry in lane, at times a bit too forceful in gank attempts, and eventually failed to register on the same page. In Dardoch's place is now veteran and two-time league champion Jake "Xmithie" Puchero, a stalwart in the jungle for years, and the vocal leader Immortals need to work in tandem with SSONG's strict training.
"Xmithie has very good shot-calling," said Flame. "He has a mind [that] goes over the entire game. He makes us all a better team. Last season, we didn't have any knowledge over vision. We had to win lane and snowball, and if we couldn't do that, we would not win the game. Now we have vision knowledge and are good at the team game. We're getting better at communication too, so I can use [teleport] well with our vision and knowledge of the game."
After a split to forget, Immortals could have gone for wholesale changes but went for quiet moves instead. While Dardoch went to CLG and Team SoloMid welcomed back Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, Immortals tried to fix the team, instead of hoping a single player could change everything..
Flame smirks following a 2-0 victory over rival Team SoloMid, the first best-of win over TSM in Immortals' record. He is starting to get acclimated to not only his team but North America. He jokes around about how he enjoys the weather and the food. His teammates are fun. Things are changing for Immortals. Flame, a player sick of hearing about his past glory, wants to create a new legend in the NA LCS.
"I want to win," answered Flame when asked if believes he can be the best top laner in the region. "I want our team to be the best in NA. I want to be the best, and I want us to win, too. I want to go to the World Championship, and I want to go to All-Stars, I've never gone [before]."
The season of chaos is over in Flame's mind. Now, in the summer, it's time to get to work. It's time to win.