be_ixf;ym_202208 d_12; ct_150
Photos of Team Liquid's fighting game players for Super Smash Brothers Melee and Street Fighter V

Hungrybox is #1!

Jan 152018

On July 17, 2016, fighting game fans at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas were buzzing with excitement after the final day of intense competition which crowned the latest batch of Evo champions.

Among them was Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, along with his coach and close friend, Luis "Crunch" Rosias, who couldn't believe they'd made one of the greatest runs in Super Smash Bros. Melee history to overcome Adam "Armada" Lindgren and solidify Hungrybox's claim as the best in the world. 

The two were hysterical, even laughing as they ate, as they enjoyed a celebratory meal at the resort's upscale steakhouse and reflected on what this win meant for Hungrybox.

"After that, everything changed," Hungrybox said. "Team Liquid saw me not just as a competitor, but as an asset to the team. I saw myself as someone that could do this for a living. I realized that, perhaps I don't need to work where I'm working. Perhaps I could just do this in the long term. So that was really exciting."

Evo was Hungrybox's ultimate goal. He placed second the prior two years, and third in 2013, which meant he was one of the best, but not the best. However, in 2016, with Crunch's help, Hungrybox dominated the spring season and finished the first half of the year with an Evo title and as a favorite to earn Melee's coveted SSBM No. 1 rank for the year. The win eventually led Hungrybox to leave his engineering job and pursue Melee full time. Although it seemed like his year, the top slot in SSBMRank still eluded him.

Unlike chess or tennis, Melee's rankings aren't based on ELO, but from the opinions of a panel of top players, commentators and analysts. Although subjective, the rankings are widely accepted as the gold standard for the competitive scene. A disappointing second half gave Armada just enough room to slide into the No. 1 rank in the last tournament of the season and Hungrybox was in a familiar spot: looking up at Armada at the start of the 2017 season. To make matters worse, Hungrybox injured his index finger before the first major of the year, Genesis 4. He was left with a difficult choice: miss one of the year's biggest events or completely relearn how to control his infamous Jigglypuff. Hbox chose the latter and a year later, despite this hardship, he is the No. 1 ranked player in world.

Hungrybox began the 2017 season with an injury, coming off a disappointing stretch which included his self-proclaimed worst tournament in years, fifth at The Big House 6. 


"[Genesis 4] was the start of 2017, right after the 2016 title was taken away from me at UGC by Armada, officially," Hungrybox said. "So it was the new year. [The injury] was really heartbreaking for me. But I'm not the kind of guy to sit down and give up. I'm a problem-solver. So I just tried to innovate."


Hungrybox realized he could limit his pain and let his finger heal if he replaced all his index finger inputs with his middle finger. Although a seemingly simple solution, the muscle memory from playing one way for most of his life made it difficult to adjust. 


"My first tournament [of 2017], Wizzrobe 3-0'd me and, of course, Mew2King destroyed me," Hungrybox said. "But I knew it wasn't fully my fault and I was going to try my best to make sure I brought it back. I was so close to being the best and then this injury was going to try to stop me. But I didn't give up. I knew that the moment I brought it back, it would be my chance to really get back on top."


Two weeks later at Genesis 4, Hungrybox did just that. "I'm still surprised that it worked like it did," Hungrybox commented. "It wasn't perfect, but I was still able to make it to the top four at Genesis. I was still able to 3-0 [but] I lost to Mang0 twice. Mang0 beats me twice at every single Genesis. I'm trying to change [that in 2018.]"


The year would press on and with his finger mostly recovered, Hungrybox returned to his normal control scheme and netted great results, with an improved mentality to boot. "The injury taught me not to take things for granted," he said. "Once I was unable to play, I thought, 'How fragile it is that at any point, whether it's an injury or whatever life gives, your whole career could be over.' I learned to be a lot more careful, a lot [smarter] with how I control my habits when I play."

His second major of the year was Smash Summit 4, a series that Armada had won every iteration of.  Although Hungrybox was just back from his injury, he felt he had to win and overcome last year's rankings. This mindset placed a lot of pressure him and ultimately backfired, according to Hungrybox. He placed second, and Armada notched his fourth-straight Summit title.


"You can only play your best when you really are enjoying what you do and you really are having fun," he said. "You can't put pressure on yourself. You can't give yourself this expectation to be the best player in the world. That's what I kept doing at Summit 2, Summit 3, and Summit 4. I got second place to Armada three Summits in a row. And every time I was there, [I had] the idea that 'you have to be the best.' You can't think about that."


Despite this setback, Juan would go onto win several events such as Full Bloom 3 and DreamHack Austin, but to Hungrybox, his first big win of the year was in June at Smash 'N' Splash 3, where he fought through a gauntlet of Mang0, Armada, and Leffen to win his second Smash 'N' Splash title.


Hungrybox's 3-2 victory against Armada stood out, despite being a winners' finals matchup. This was Juan’s first Armada win since his injury, which was monumental at the time given that Armada had only dropped two sets total (both to Mang0 at Royal Flush) during that span. Hungrybox was so overjoyed with this win alone, he pounded an onstage TV and kicked a nearby chair, which caused heavy tissue damage to his foot. He endured the injury for the ensuing grand finals reset to take the win over Leffen.


"I went through a little bit of personal therapy at home where I was learning to use my finger for typing with my keyboard, typing with my phone," he said. "And little by little, I was finally able to play [normally]. Even still, I was having some trouble. I won Smash 'N' Splash, which was a huge win for me. It was with my finger, and I hurt my foot doing it."


The next big event on Hungrybox's calendar was Evo 2017. Although he was the defending champ, Armada was by far the favorite to win it all. The event was squeezed into two days, which made endurance much more of a factor than in the past.


"Evo 2017 was the hardest day of my life, in terms of competing," Hungrybox said. "It was a two-day event for Melee. We started at 11 a.m., and I was eating and drinking, and I ended up getting a pretty bad stomach virus the morning of." Juan kept pushing through pools, throwing up in between sets in a garbage can at the venue. "It was bad," he said. "I had pretty much the hardest bracket imaginable. Here's all these Fox players back-to-back-to-back. I had a lot of game threes that I shouldn't have won."


Hungrybox powered through the Lylat System's finest Fox mains. His first real challenge was Hax, who forfeited game three due to controller issues. Then a win over fellow Floridian, Colbol, brought Hungrybox out of pools.


Although he found comfort in a slanted matchup with James "Duck" Ma, a Samus player, his next challenger was SFAT, who beat him at Shine and The Big House 6. SFAT brought it to game three, but couldn't convert. Hungrybox, still sick to his stomach, made it to top eight winners’ side. Normally, this would mean he'd have a day to rest after hours of fierce competition, but Evo's two-day Melee schedule was far less forgiving.


Less than three hours later, Hungrybox lost 2-1 to Mang0 in winners' semifinals. Next up was Plup, then Mew2king. Despite not feeling 100 percent, Hungrybox managed to pull off both sets 2-0. "That was just a rough tournament," he said. "I wasn't expecting to win, let alone get top three."


Hungrybox endured and brought Mang0 to game five in losers' finals which was good for a respectable third place finish.

"I think if I played Armada, there was no telling whether or not I could have beaten him, but it would've been pretty crazy if it happened," he said. "I didn't take it too badly for myself because I had already won Smash 'N' Splash and I didn't play my best that day. So I was still happy with how I did."

Just like Hungrybox in 2016, Armada capped off an impressive spring and summer run with an Evo title. However, after the win, Armada decided to sit out Super Smash Con 2017 and Shine 2017, electing to stay in Europe for smaller events closer to home. Hungrybox, meanwhile, was struggling with the financial burden of owning a new house.


"I was putting too much pressure on myself," he said. "I had purchased a home that I was living in. And then I had to pay the mortgage on that home, so I was trying to make sure that I could play my best and make the most money on tournaments. And I think that pressure just backfired." Hungrybox barely scraped fourth at Smash Con, and took second at DreamHack Atlanta after losing to Plup, a fellow Florida native.


Top-level Melee is often a battle of mental fortitude. Although seven different players have won every notable tournament this year, the matchups between these pros are highly dependent on mindset alone. When Hungrybox lets the immense pressure of competing get to him, he'll make mistakes and get punished. With a character like Jigglypuff, who dies at low percents and needs precise timing for rests, Hungrybox, especially, can suffer from a bad mentality. That's why Crunch, who understands Hungrybox on a deeper level, is such an asset, according to Hungrybox.


"The reason he's my coach is because he knows me unlike any other person, not only to play against, but he knows what to tell me to get my mindset in the right place," he said. "He knows I can get in my own thoughts and emotions sometimes, and he knows how to get me out of it. He was just really good at all these events in doing that."


Although he had Crunch by his side, the financial burden of paying off the mortgage loomed over Hungrybox's shoulder. This pressure bred a must-win mentality, which according to Hungrybox, makes him his own worst enemy. "I knew for a fact that having that pressure, that you HAVE to win, is the worst thing you could do," he remarked.


Hungrybox nearly squandered Armada's August break, if not for an impressive win over Mang0 at Shine. Mang0 was the only "God" at Shine, but the win gave Hungrybox the confidence to push forward. Not long after, Hungrybox moved back in with his parents. "Once that happened, I started winning every event," Hungrybox confidently commented. "The level of dominance only happened after Shine. Shine was the proof to me that I could do it." 


With pressures of homeownership relieved, he set his sights on GameTyrant Expo (GTX) 2017, and its $30,000 prize pool. "I put a lot of priority into it," he said. "We always talked about 'GTX! GTX! GTX! This is what matters!' because the money was there. First place got like $12,000. We always prioritize and practice for the events that have the most money." The prize money even drew Armada stateside, making GTX the most stacked event since Evo.


"I wasn't playing that well when I first got there," Juan admitted. Hungrybox and Crunch spent all of their time warming up, hoping to improve Hungrybox's sluggish play. But this practice wasn't enough to best Mew2King in winners’ side. After the loss, Hungrybox slammed his water bottle into the ground in disappointment and Crunch was there to calm him down.


"You've done this before," he said.


"I know I have, but it's not easy by any means," Hungrybox responded.


Hbox played Plup next. Down 1-0 in a five-game set, Juan took a deep breath and got introspective. He thought about his life, and personal struggles at the time. In this moment, he knew not to blame himself if he didn't perform. He kept that in mind and just stayed calm. His goal? To just keep playing until he lost.


"I'm sort of charging up, charging up, charging up," he said. "And the next thing I know I'm playing Armada, I'm smiling the whole time and I'm happy. Once I got to Armada, my mission was accomplished. I knew I was at least playing at my level, which is top two in the world. And once that was the case, I was like 'OK, we're good.'"


Hungrybox and Armada reenacted their Evo 2016 set. Game five. Last stock. Hungrybox poised to overcome his demons.


"[It was a] crazy ass clutch comeback which I shouldn't have won, and I was wondering 'What's going on?'" he remarked. "But I just accepted it for what it was. I moved on. I got the money. It really was crazy. There's no other way of putting it. I have to accept it for what it was and be happy that I won. Big House 7 was the next week and we won that one too!"


Hungrybox won two of the biggest tournaments of the year in back-to-back weeks. He maintained his winning mentality and stayed calm. "Right up until Summit, there was an argument for both myself or Armada being the best," he said. "But my idea, again, was that I can't really stress being the best anymore. That's why I went to as many events as possible, because I wanted to compete. I didn't want to be the best, I just wanted to play."


The weekend of Summit, after hours of practice, Crunch told told Hungrybox he was playing the best he'd ever seen. "I wasn't even going out of my mind, I was just calm and Zen, playing how I knew how to play," he said. "And that was that. I just did what I knew how to do best."


His best tore through a bracket of top Foxes including Mang0 and Leffen, beating them both 3-1 to earn his place in the winners' side of the grand finals.


Once again, Armada and Hungrybox faced off in the tournament's final set. Armada drew first blood, but Hungrybox won the next two games. Armada forced a game five, hoping to reset the bracket and defend his No. 1 rank.


Before the final game, Crunch gave Hungrybox one final reminder about a potential edge guard, the best advice he could've given. "Even during game five versus Armada, it was once again last stock at Summit," a scene Smash fans have gotten accustomed to. "And then I got that edge guard forward air, which is something Crunch had told me right beforehand, 'Make sure you do this edge guard!' That's when it all hit me. 'Oh my God. This has happened.'"


Hungrybox started tearing up. No injury, personal struggle, or in-game mentality could stop him from obtaining something which eluded him three times in the past. At the time he least expected, he said, it was all in his hands. And that was it. Hungrybox was the Smash Summit 5 champion, cementing his reign as the best player in 2017.


"So many crazy situations," he said. "Against Amsa, the Yoshi player, Wizzy almost beating me, all the clutch moments that I had, those all could have been coin flips and gone the other way. But they passed. When it mattered the most, I was able to control myself under pressure."


Although he admits he gets in his own head from time to time, Hungrybox powered through deep brackets from September to November by keeping calm and not focusing on the loss. "If your own best isn't a win, that's not your fault," he said. "That's just everyone else being better than you. But if your own best causes you to win it means you were playing your best. You can't really be upset about that."


In the last few months, no one has been better.

Yahoo! Smash Rivalries. DreamHack Austin 2017. Smash 'N' Splash 3. Shine 2017. GTX 2017. The Big House 7. Smash Summit 5. When the best players in the world competed, Hungrybox came out on top more than anyone else. His closest rival, Armada, netted only three major wins despite an immaculate record up until May.


Though Hungrybox has always known he's one of the best, this year's ranking is undeniable proof that he was, overall, better than everyone in the world — something he admits he's waited 10 years for.


"There is no argument now," he said "The math now adds all up, any way you look at it. And that's what I wanted. I didn't want to get a free pass. I wanted definitive proof that when the cards were in my hands, when it really went the way I want to go, I could do it."


After the win at Summit, Hungrybox took the offseason to rest up, and prepare to defend his growing tournament streak, along with his newly minted ranking. Although Hungrybox isn't sure if the pressure of keeping a streak alive is the best idea for his mentality, he won't give it up without a fight.


"Now a lot of people may see me as the villain of Melee, being the Puff player at No. 1, so I really am curious how I'm going to handle the pressure of being the official No. 1 for a year," he remarked. "I love challenges, so I'm really excited more than anything. I'm not anxious, I'm not tense, I'm just excited."


With Mang0 and Armada both hungry to dethrone Hungrybox, 2018 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting seasons in years. "They're gonna be coming at me with everything they have, but I'm ready for it," he said. "It's part of the rush and it's part of what makes things fun."