Eight months ago, days after landing in Los Angeles to begin his career in the North American League Championship Series with his new club, Immortals, Lee "Flame" Ho-jong sat in the team's practice room, not knowing how to express what had gone wrong the past two years. Once considered the best top laner in the world in 2013 and 2014, he sat on the bench for most of 2015 and 2016 before being signed to Immortals as its lone top laner.
Outsiders to his situation saw it as the coming to an end for the legend of the game, but Flame, in his freshly-made Immortals jersey, expressed defiance. He didn't think he was done, nowhere near it. From his point of view, the past two years were difficult, but the old Flame, the one that regularly finished 100 CS above his opponent in South Korea, hadn't gone anywhere. He wanted to prove everyone wrong, and Immortals, a team in the midst of an almost full rebuild, might have given him his final chance to do it.
On Sunday, when teams around the world are already done for the year, eliminated from Worlds contention, Flame will still be wearing his Immortals jersey in the NA LCS final against four-time champion Team SoloMid for his first league title ever as a starter. Flame's last domestic final, back in 2013 when his star shined the brightest and was in the conversation for the best player overall, was a disaster; his team, CJ Entus Blaze, heavy favorites on a 13-game win streak, lost in a devastating sweep to MVP Ozone (which later became the Samsung organization) that would shatter Flame's invincible aura.
Back then, one of the faces of South Korean League of Legends, his face plastered over almost every advertisement for OGN's premier tournament, Champions, Flame played for fun. He knew he was good, and that allowed him to flex his muscles against weaker opposition. He was young, and with youth came immaturity.
Now on Immortals, four years removed from his debut in the professional scene and now considered a veteran, Flame still has fun playing the game, but he understands what it means to be a professional gamer.
"I have a [really strong] attitude and mind now," Flame said after his team's advancement to the final last Saturday in a 3-0 sweep over Counter Logic Gaming. "[Back then] I was young. I feel like I was a very good player, but I didn't have a good mind [or] attitude [that matched] my play."
Even in the spring split, Flame's play wasn't up to his expectations. Immortals came into the 2017 season expecting to at least be a playoff team, and the team failed to make the postseason for the first time in the organization's history. The team flopped at the final hurdle against Dignitas and finished a disappointing seventh, with Flame suffering from a season of communication mistakes and below-average play.
In the offseason between spring and summer, Immortals could have picked up a substitute top laner, or even replaced Flame, but it didn't. Instead, it trusted in Flame. For the first time in three years, a team believed that Flame could bounce back and return to the heights of 2013 before the MVP Ozone series. In turn, Flame had a remarkable summer season, becoming something that not even the Flame of old could do -- adapting to his teammates instead of the other way around. Once known in his heyday for being the ultimate carry, he could still be that if needed, but he was far more than that now. Utility, tank, mage, AD carry -- you name it, Flame can play it.
"Last split, we didn't have harmony," Flame said. "But we have good harmony and teamwork now. I can play anything. In [the] regular-season, I just played [meta] champions, but I want to play more champions."
When Flame talks, he's gracious and polite, always smiling as he's doing so. But underneath, there is supreme confidence. Over the months of interviewing, he's never doubted himself nor his team, even when things were on the downturn. When the spring season didn't go as planned, he knew that if he was given the opportunity to learn and grow with his teammates -- something he didn't have the luxury of doing on LGD Gaming (2015, China) or Longzhu Gaming (2016, South Korea) -- the results would come.
Immortals has already qualified for Worlds and is playing in its first league final on Sunday, where not even current SKT T1 top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon could lead it last year.
The results certainly came.
"I'm very grateful for improving again, but it doesn't mean that much," he said. "I've improved like this in the past, so I just want to improve at the World Championship against world class teams."
At the TD Garden in Boston, Flame will be looking across Summoner's Rift at the best American-born top laner in the world, Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell -- someone whose star, like Flame in 2013, is on a meteoric rise. On Twitter, when prompted, Hauntzer proclaimed, "I am the best [top laner in the league]. I'll prove it next week [at the final]."
Before TSM even qualified for the final the next day over Dignitas in its semifinal, Flame was ready for the challenge. Hauntzer isn't the only top laner on Sunday wanting to prove he's the best in all of North America.
"I'm looking forward to playing against Hauntzer," said Flame. "I want to meet TSM quickly."