Hungrybox And Dabuz Are Thriving In The Ever-Changing World Of Smash
Two of Team Liquid's longest tenured active Smash players, Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma and Samuel "Dabuz" Buzby, have survived (and thrived) despite the seismic shifts in the Super Smash Bros. landscape.
Few gaming scenes have undergone more radical changes in the past decade than those for the Super Smash Bros. series. Melee's competitive scene is alive and well despite turning 22 years old this past year, bolstered by a newly thriving online scene. Ultimate too continues to host some of the biggest tournaments of all time, long after its release hype has died down and the release of meta-changing DLC characters.
Two of Team Liquid's longest tenured active Smash players, Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma and Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby, have survived (and thrived) despite the seismic shifts in the Smash landscape. Despite playing characters the community believes to be mid-tiers, left behind by the meta, Dabuz has remained one of Ultimate's great constants, even breaking through and winning his first major Ultimate tournament this year at CEO 2023. As for Hbox, if he’s at a Melee major, he's still a guarantee to make Top 8. And in the new, revitalized era of SSBM, that’s a major feat.
“The fact that you can play Melee online now with anyone in your continent, pretty much instantaneously with minimal lag has leveled the playing field in a way we've never seen before,” Hungrybox said. “I literally will tell you that when I used to go to tournaments in the pre-pandemic era, being a top player, I could sort of cruise through pools on autopilot. I sometimes didn't even have to look at the screen and now, when I go to pools for majors, even my pools opponents will sometimes get me to last stock. Maybe even take a game if they're really, really good. You can't sleep on anyone any more.”
But if it was just about the proliferation of high-level online play, this phenomenon would be limited to the Melee scene. That hasn't been the case. Dabuz discussed a similar experience of tournament difficulty increasing since his origins in the Smash scene in the Brawl days all the way through his time competing in Ultimate. It's not just that player bases have gotten larger. The seriousness with which competition is taken has increased as well.
“When I first entered the scene, competing was purely a casual hobby for me,” Dabuz said. “It was something I was very serious about, very passionate about. But, it wasn't my livelihood. The scale of the game has gone crazy. The fact that it can be more than just a hobby is a big deal. As a result, people take it a lot more seriously than they used to. They practice more, they lab more, there's a lot more content about improving.”
With more players truly going for it in Smash, just maintaining your prior level has become a major challenge for players of the caliber of Dabuz or Hungrybox. “ I always said in Smash 4 there were like 20 to 30 people I would consider a threat, people that could really beat me,” Dabuz said. “Nowadays there's more than 100 people in the world where I'll be like, yeah, this person can beat me, this person keeps up with the game and is a threat.”
It hasn't always been easy for Hungrybox or Dabuz to keep up with the times. The online era forced by the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most trying times of Hungrybox's Melee career. Not only was he struggling to stay motivated to compete online, he was also growing a streaming career in Ultimate. A very lucrative one, at that.
“For what I get from four hours of playing melee, If I stream four hours of ultimate today, I could make 10 times as much or have new opportunities or get new sponsorships. “ Hungrybox said. “I [thought], I [could] still be pretty good at Melee without [playing] it [as much] but then lo and behold, when the online era started, I went from placing the way someone Rank 1 would place -- first and second every tournament -- to getting ninth or thirteenth online. And I couldn't tell if it was because I started putting more emphasis on Ultimate or because [of] the atmosphere online.”
For Hungrybox, competing at a level he could be happy with while wearing these new hats as a businessman and streamer meant he had to rethink his motivations. “I no longer balance my own self-worth with my ranking. I used to do that. I used to think that all I was really my rank and that if I don't have that, I kind of have nothing on earth. But as time went on and I realized my other talents and I realized, some of the reasons people do appreciate me in that case, it helped me become better at losing and I think part of being the best player in the world is knowing how to lose as well.”
Both Dabuz and Hungrybox turned 30 in 2023. Despite the rise of the Slippi generation, Hungrybox's age isn't so unique among top Melee players but Dabuz is unique among Ultimate's player base. The rise of prodigies like 17-year-old current Smash Ultimate top-ranked player Acola has led many to believe it's only a young man's game. Dabuz isn't so convinced.
“Age helps a lot for Smash, just because you get that patience.” Dabuz says. “Something a lot of people say is, 'You get older, you lose reaction times,' and that's not really true, not until your 40s. So it doesn't end up being the issue people expect it to be. If anything, the biggest issue with getting older is just having the time to commit to practicing while trying to manage other parts of my life.” And that's true for everybody trying to make a living while competing in Smash, no matter what game they're playing.
Hungrybox has maintained his legendary Top 8 streak at offline events throughout the pandemic, but his rankings have nevertheless slipped to their lowest since SSBMRank first appeared on the scene in 2013. After ranking no worse than fifth in the past decade, Hungrybox slipped to eighth in the Summer 2023 SSBMRank. Given his world-beating accomplishments, it would have been easy for him to hang up the GameCube Controller — and he did think about it. But the fire to be the best still burns inside him.
“One of the beautiful things about Melee is that there's always gonna be another tournament. Everyone's always gonna get another chance to shine as long as you keep competing,” Hungrybox said. “I've been in the game now 17 years and I really do want to touch the ceiling again.” But how possible is that in this new Melee world, and while juggling a life with more responsibilities than just pursuing the title of number 1?
“I'm confident that I can do it,” Hungrybox says. But that confidence comes with an understanding that this is not the same kind of task as becoming number 1 in the late 2010s was. There have been many changes to the scene, of course. But Hungrybox is also not the same Hungrybox who was pushing for the top spot in 2015. “The motivation feels different. Before the pandemic, Melee was almost all I would think about. I would play it literally every single day, go to every single local in my region, constantly enter things. It was just my status, I don't know. It was like everything that stood for me.”
“But I also think, [...] was I truly happy back then doing that or am I happier now?” Hungrybox asked. As this interview was conducted, Hungrybox was preparing to run another entry of his Coinbox tournament series for Ultimate, with a $6,000 prize pool and about a thousand entrants. Wild as it sounds, this is the reality for many of the top Smash players in the modern era, who have to manage their brand and content on top of their practice.. For some, it can be overwhelming. But for Hungrybox, it creates a deeper sense of identity and self-worth.
Dabuz too had an uphill journey to competing, content, and identity in the post-lockdown era. The pandemic was particularly poorly timed for Dabuz, who was enjoying a stretch of his best results in Ultimate as it hit, the closest to the level of dominance he had displayed at his peak in Smash 4.
“I was on a huge upswing and that kind of crushed all that momentum. I had to go from thinking about, 'I just want to practice and be the best,' to 'Alright, I have to focus on content for a long time.'” The meta that emerged upon the return to offline play was not kind to Dabuz, to say the least. The new DLC had excellent matchups into his character pool, and the prevalence of Olimar in the online era meant that many players came out of lockdown with a significantly improved understanding of the matchup. As a result, 2022 was his worst year of competition in a long time.
Dabuz is known for one of the most methodical playstyles in Ultimate, something developed over more than a decade of play. But even an old dog has to learn new tricks to keep up in today's meta.
“I went to Japan, I had a big, like, practice arc there,” Dabuz said. “I actually fought a very good Rosa player that gave me a lot of ideas. His name is YamaD. And that really gave me a second push to be like, alright, I can figure something out, I don't have to switch characters. It's up to my skills as a player.”
This trip was in Spring of 2023. To close out that trip, Dabuz posted one of his best results since lockdown, a 4th-place finish at Kagaribi 10, Japan's biggest tournament of the year to that point. It was one of the best results any international player has posted in Japan and it was proof that Dabuz could still adapt to a meta that many thought had left him in the dust. That was only the beginning Dabuz would make big runs at Super Smash Con, Cirque Du CFL 2, and — especially -– CEO.
“I guess that really manifested at CEO, where I was playing a very different playstyle than I used to, right? And that playstyle was very effective. Riddles was a demon for a while, and then in Japan, I barely beat him. And at CEO, I still barely beat him. I won the grand finals reset 3-1, but it was like man, he 4-0'd me at first. I had to pull some crazy stuff out.”
The win at CEO 2023 was Dabuz's first at a major Ultimate tournament despite spending the entire game's lifespan as a fixture in Top 8s. It couldn't have come at a better time for his confidence in his future as a competitor. “It was nice to know that I still have the tenacity to be down and figure out how to pick myself back up when everyone's doubting me. Being able to see, here is the proof that I can still do it. And here is the proof that I'm still improving and that I am not limited yet. It's very nice to hit that high, especially after such a downfall.”
Despite the rapidly changing scene and the adversity they faced in the first few years of the 2020s, neither Dabuz nor Hungrybox thinks they're reaching the end of their competitive journey any time soon.
“I play this game for a reason. I quit my job and did smash full-time for a reason,” Hungrybox said. “And that reason is I still believe that this is what I was meant to do. Maybe now with more sprinkles on top with content. But I don't think anyone ever really quits melee. Even if you stop playing it, I think you think about it every single day.”
As for Dabuz, no matter which game the rest of the Smash scene focuses on, he'll be there, ready to compete. “I just love competition,” Dabuz says. “It's nice to challenge yourself against other people also challenging themselves.That sweet feeling of victory, it's so great. Especially when it's contrasted with how shit it feels to lose. The highs and lows both suck and are amazing. And I just enjoy playing games, right? I've always played games growing up. Always been a competitive person. I can't see myself not doing that.
“So it's really just a matter of if and when we get to Smash 6, which I don't think will be for a while. But yeah, unless something substantially changes, I will probably just compete for a long time. I'll just be the Daigo of Smash.”