High and low with Hungrybox at Big House 4

Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma is a chemical engineering student with a heavy course load and a personal life

Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma is a chemical engineering student with a heavy course load and a personal life. He dabbles in music, watches the University of Florida Gators in action every Saturday, and does schoolwork. He is also one of the best Super Smash Bros. Melee players in the world.

As a member of Curse Gaming, Debiedma goes by the moniker “Hungrybox,” playing his trademark Jigglypuff in a way that few, if any players can match. But unlike League of Legends players, he doesn’t earn a salary from the developer. The prize pool at the most recent international Smash tournament awarded a paltry $2,280 to the winner, with 7th/8th place finishers garnering less than the cost of their hotel room for the weekend. Even EVO, the premier Smash tournament for the year, awards only $5,820 to the winner; a far cry from the million dollars earned by each member of the world’s top Dota squad.

Instead, Smashers thrive on the glory of victory, the validation of a crowd chanting their name. This requires that competitors enter each tournament with the utmost confidence in order to withstand the pressure. But when neither competitive nor financial validation are to be had, the psychological blow can be crushing.

Debiedma found himself in precisely this situation in Romulus, Michigan. I sat down with the prolific player as he waxed rhapsodic about his new mindset and outlook before the competition began. Then I spoke with him again after it ended—and after he landed outside the prize money at a major tournament for the first time in his career.

For spectators, losses like these are an event, a talking point, a Reddit post, and a statistical anomaly. For competitors like Debiedma however, with little financial remuneration for their trials, its a seed of doubt and a creeping conception that hours spent practicing and perfecting their skills are hours ultimately wasted.

Here’s the first part of our interview, conducted before the tournament:

Daily Dot: You seem to be doing better and better in tournaments lately. Can you comment on your recent run of form?

Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma: I’ve been really working on my neutral game, especially Jigglypuff vs Fox. To win tournaments I basically had to improve against Fox, figure out how to beat Young Link and beat [Kevin “PPMD” Nanney].

What adjustments have you made since coming in second at EVO?

I’ve just tried to maintain that same level of positivity. I didn’t get much sleep today, which is a little worrying, but I figure I’ll just grind through it and collapse tonight once we get to the top bracket.

The only tournament I’ve lost since EVO was when I played against [Colin “Colbol” Green]. But it happens, you know? That’s the way it used to be, just back and forth so he knows me pretty well. I’ve also tried to make sure I have no boundaries allowing me to execute, so I bought a new controller and it’s been letting me smash DI a lot better.

I’ve got Melee’s top statistician putting me in the top of his list for this tournament. It’s really exciting because I haven’t won an international since Apex 2010, so that’d be really cool if I won this. And I think I can, as long as I’m playing like I did at EVO and add anything I’ve learned in terms of neutral game and edge-guards.

It sounds like you’re really targeting any weakness in your game.

Every single top player is just a well-oiled machine. You’ve just gotta make sure you can turn every screw as tight as you can.

It surprises me to hear that you’d have any anxiety issues. As I’ve seen you around the venue, you just seem cool and collected.

Oh yeah. Well, I think that’s what really pushed me over from being a really good local player to being what they call “god status.” I was able to sort of get over these nerves, but my breakout tournament, Genesis One? I was nervous the entire time!

I remember I had to play [Bronson “DaShizWiz” Layton] who was, at the time, my biggest inspiration in Smash. He was the best player in Florida. He was like, carrying the state and I thought that was so cool. Then we played in our bracket and I ended up beating him and I actually felt horrible. I broke down outside. I thought, “what if I lose one of my next two matches?” I might let down my state.

But then, I played Phil [DeBerry], I played [David “Darkrain” John], I beat [Bobby “Scar” Scarnewman], and next thing I know I made it to [Julian] Zhu and I beat him. Suddenly, I was in the [loser’s bracket] finals. Someone came up to me and said, “Dude, you’re top three,” and I couldn’t believe it.

I just thought, if I can do this again, then maybe I am good at this game. Maybe I am meant to play this game. Then, Apex 2010 happened and I beat Armada and I thought, “Maybe this is what I am meant to do.” So that was definitely the big confidence boost. And everyone needs that breakout tournament that tells you, “I can do this.”

I’ve noticed that every player seems to have that seminal moment. Without a ladder system, competitive Smashers seem to make steps that validate your skill.

Yeah, that was difficult for me as a player because I use Jigglypuff and it was very “gimmicky.” More recently, I’ve gained more respect for it, but when I see other people use it, I understand their frustration. But the way I’m playing Jigglypuff now, I think I’ve put her on another plateau because I’ve turned her into a force-down character where I just eat all your options at all times and I’m all around you.

I’ve noticed that you really use the floating style to manage space between you and your character.

Yeah, I mean, have you seen me and Fox? I mean, the micro in that game when Fox is pressuring you and I’m just spot dodging and waiting for a jab opportunity, it’s extremely fast paced. You wouldn’t think that Jigglypuff would be that fast but you have to be.

If it were a gimmick, it seems like something you’ve turned into a legitimate style of play.

I was always good at platformers as a kid, and I think that’s where I learned how to space things. I just happened to pick the right character at the right time, you know what I mean? Once you’ve got spacing and once you determine that you can play the game, the next step is to learn the match-ups.

I lived in an area where I had a crew called “What are the Odds?” who played a variety of characters so I learned really quickly. One of the strongest characters, just by coincidence, was Shiek and then when I played him, it just all made sense.

There is no VIP seating or anything like that here, but as soon as someone like Hungrybox walks in the room, people stop and stare.

The whole celebrity thing is so funny because Smash is an esport now. It’s just always bizarre when someone asks you for an autograph or a picture. It is really cool though, because I feel like it’s making up for lost time and the first few years of my career when people really disliked me.

The interesting thing about your community, however, is that its grass-roots nature really helps people get to know each other—past their Twitter persona.

It’s like [D’Ron ““D1” Maingrette] said: Before Twitter shout outs were a thing, after a tournament, you’d just go out to eat together and you’d have sort of a family bond. We didn’t have anyone else, the community just had the community. The coolest thing about the Smash community, the overall motif is that we always persevere through whatever is thrown at us. There’s really a personal spot for anyone.

After this interview, Debiedma suffered one of the worst defeats of his career, landing outside of the top eight for the first time since his breakthrough tournament.

How do you feel?

Not good. I thought MLG was the worst I would ever do at a tournament but I proved myself wrong apparently. I got ninth because I lost to Leffen again, which I told myself I wouldn’t do, and then I lost to [Joey “Lucky” Aldama. I guess I was trying to determine why I couldn’t beat every Fox now.

After I lost to [William “Leffen” Hjelte], I was disappointed in myself, but one of the hardest things about being a top gamer is coping with losses. One way to do that is to just prepare and be prepared for the “if”; tell yourself, “I might lose this.” Mid-way through the second game I was just like, “there’s a chance you might lose this because he’s Fox and you’re Jigglypuff and he’s really good. So don’t do what you usually do and just have it ruin you,” because I do that so often. So because I was coping and preparing it kinda put me in that mindset.

You went from thinking “if” this happens to “when” this happens.

Exactly. I tried to put on the music and put myself back in the right mindset. But I lost, and I got ninth. I didn’t make top eight for the first time. This whole top eight thing started when I was already good so I think this is the first time I’ve finished outside the top eight in a tournament with a top eight. But, it was bound to happen at some point. I just wish I was more consistent. I don’t want to lose that status.

What was different about this tournament? Fox and Falco seemed to perform very well this weekend.

I think people are really catching up in the meta. For Jigglypuff to win against them you have to land rests and you have to get the setups and they’re really closing down on those. And I was trying, you know? It’s not even that I was playing bad, everyone else was just having a really good day. I mean, I had beaten Lucky 3-2, so he’s just a really good player. Unfortunately, having trouble with Fox and Falco really determines your whole tournament.

As a competitor, you probably don’t like to make excuses, but you caught two hot players. Does that change your thinking?

It really does. I really wanted anyone but Lucky or [Aziz “Hax” Al-Yami]. I mean, you can be ranked above a Fox player and still lose, but that’s just the match up.

So what’s the next event for you?

Any Florida local and Apex 2015 in January, obviously. The thing is, everyone always says “there’s always next tournament.” I know that there’s always next tournament. I just wanted to be the best in a certain present. I really get in my own head, but I think everyone does. Losses like these are what make me come dangerously close to seriously considering what I’m doing with my life, Smash included.

Any special preparation planned for the next major?

No, I don’t train very often. Smash is not my priority. Like, I don’t practice. I just come to tournaments and I use the same skill I earned in high school and hope for the best. I don’t actively think, “I have to train for this many hours in a day,” but I know for a fact that Armada does that, Mew2King does that, I’m sure Joseph “Mang0” Marquez does that because he streams all the time.

Me though? I’m a senior chemical engineering student. I was working all this week getting my résumé ready and attending a career showcase.

What are your big takeaways from this tournament and your experience?

Fuck Fox. (laughs) It’s a really loaded environment because, you can say you grew up with something and you can say you matured with something, and I matured with Smash. Trying to cope with it all and being this figure in the community. I love it and I hate it simultaneously all the time. At times I wish I wasn’t sponsored because I just wanted to wear a regular T-shirt, you know?

I wasn’t wearing my jersey as much this weekend, I wasn’t standing up when I played, and I wasn’t wearing the “PNDA” tag and I’m very superstitious. I’m the most superstitious Smasher. I have to be standing, I have to have a certain chair, I have to have the “PNDA” tag, [my character has to] wear the green headband, and I have to be either first or fourth [controller port] always. Otherwise I think something is holding me back, some divine force, which is completely stupid in every single way but for whatever reason I’m superstitious.

This is what I do. If I’m like, at home and I’m watching a football game, like the ([University of Florida] Gators, I think, “If they score this touchdown, I’m going to win Big House.” I’m driving in my car and I’m like, “if this light turns green by the time I get to it, I’m going to win Big House.” And I’m like, “why the fuck do I do this to myself all the time? Why do I just think like that?

No, you’ll win if you put the work into it and you’ll lose if you don’t and that’s what happened here. I didn’t put the work into it not because I couldn’t, but because I wouldn’t because my priorities are shifted. Because balancing the university life of a senior and a difficult degree and a relationship, trying to express myself with music as well, and Smash competitively, not to mention all the dividends and responsibilities that come with being a sponsored player is a heavy plate.

Photo by Dominic Alves/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)