"It's All a Big Action Movie": An Interview with Hungrybox
You've heard of video game competitions before, but no one player's life has been as filled with drama or redemption as that of Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma.
The poses should be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in sports. The athletes are decked out in white and blue uniforms, emblazed with a stylish, horse-head logo above the heart. They stare at the camera with a mixture of composure and cockiness, an emblem reading "Team Liquid" on all of their clothes. But the bright text above their heads doesn't read out "Football" or "Basketball". Instead the colorful, cartoonish logos for Street Fighter and Halo hang.
This is a product of the era. E-Sports are a rapidly rising commercial commodity, and players are joining together with companies, advertisers and teams in ways that mirror their peers in Soccer or Tennis. Team Liquid's collective of gamers, in particular, is impressive. They've gathered well over a dozen players from around the world, all of them competing in games like Counterstrike or League of Legends facing down other teams in international tournaments, practicing for hundreds of hours, and, if they pull it off, coming away with thousands of dollars in prize money.
And Team Liquid, despite the wealth of different games and players, has a crown jewel in its possession: Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma, the world's best Super Smash Brothers Melee player.
His pose mirrors any number of advertisements with Serena Williams or Christiano Ronaldo; head cocked to the side, eyes piercing out of the screen. His arms are folded, his beard well maintained. And, why shouldn't he emulate the best? Much like Ronaldo's win at the 2016 Euros, or Williams' Wimbledon triumph, DeBiedma is the reigning champion of his sport's greatest tournament: the Evolution Championship Series, or EVO.
For the un-initiated, Super Smash Brothers is a Nintendo series featuring some of video games' greatest characters (Mario, Link, Donkey Kong) fighting to the death at a blinding speed. The competitive scene for Melee, the second game in the series, has been around for over a decade, with most players choosing pure power or speed to knock their way into national rankings. DeBiedma's character is a bit different. He uses Jigglypuff, the singing pink puff ball you might remember from Pokémon.
About half a dozen different fighting games are played at each year's EVO, but Smash Brothers has undoubtedly become the tournament's biggest draw, in part due to performances like DeBiedma's at this year's edition. After making it to the final eight, DeBiedma lost in the first round and was dropped down into the loser's bracket, with his only chance to make it to the Grand Finals determined by his ability to battle his way back into the main bracket. And he and the pink puffball did it with aplomb, cruising back to the finals. Their they faced facing off against the then number one player in the world, Sweden's Adam "Armada" Lindgren, who had won the tournament the year before at the expense of DeBiedma. The match went down to the wire, split at two games a piece before DeBiedma snatched victory from Lindgren with just one life to spare.
DeBiedma's reaction already has the showings of something iconic. Just as he realized he won, he jumped out of his chair, hands on his head, tears in his eyes before he dropped to the ground, punching the stage and looking at the crowd with a mixture of joy and astonishment.
"It was truly closure for me or a realization. The winning is one thing, then when you see yourself on the stage and you see the guy walking to you with the trophy, and it all starts to settle in. Then you realize those tears are real, what you're feeling is real, your opponent sitting next to you, dismayed, is real. That's when it all hits you," says DeBiedma.
DeBiedma is a member of "The Five Gods," a set of players who have routinely dominated tournaments since 2008. There are three fellow Americans: Kevin "PPMD" Nanney, Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, DeBiedma's doubles partner, and the bearded, perpetually beanie-wearing Joseph "Mango" Marquez who had a long running feud with DeBiedma. The aforementioned Lindgren is the only god not from the Western Hemisphere, and is considered Europe's top player. Chose any major tournament over the last 10 years and at least one of the gods was guaranteed to be in the final.
DeBiedma has been a permanent fixture at the winner's podium at EVO, but never with the gold in his hands. He placed third in 2013, second in 2014 and second again in 2015. That final loss at EVO, and a crushing defeat to Mango at a tournament in his own hometown of Orlando had DeBiedma considering retirement. It was a period in his Smash career he considered the lowest he ever got. Only six months before he became the world's best player, he nearly stopped playing all together.
"What if I go my whole life without winning this world title? What if I really have dedicated my entire life to this and I can't show that title for it? What will I say then to my grandkids? 'I got really close kids, but there was always someone better, my dad was right.'"
Debiedma and his biological father had a fight just before the Dreamhack 2015 tournament, which Debiedma won. In an emotional interview after the competition, Debiedma revealed that his father passed away just before Dreamhack and had told him that "he would never be the best." But the win at Dreamhack brought closure, $10,000 in prize money and a new year to look forward to. The stage was set for a remarkable comeback. Debiedma went on a freakish streak of dominance; in the first half of 2016 alone he won nine national tournaments.
But the win at Dreamhack alone didn't propel Debiedma up the rankings. A major portion of his improvement came from a novel approach to E-Sports: coaching.
In came Luis "Liquid Crunch" Rosias, a professional 'Smasher" in his own right and DeBiedma's best friend. The two met when they were still kids, and Rosias lived just around the corner from DeBiedma's house in Hunter's Creek, a suburb of Orlando. As a precursor to DeBiedma's time with Team Liquid, the two helped create a Smash team in Orlando called WATO (What are the Oddz), after DeBiedma and Rosias lost at their first major tournament. They had been kings of Smash at their school, but on the state level they were still newcomers.
WATO eventually dissolved and Rosias and DeBiedma went their separate ways, still keeping in contact and playing in tournaments together. But Rosias lived in Maine and DeBiedma had moved to Georgia reducing the connection until they both returned to Florida for CEO 2015.
"I got beat horribly by Mango and Armada. Something inside me told me that I should be beating these guys," says DeBiedma. While he wallowed in frustration after the matches, he asked what he was doing wrong, unable to find the faults in his play style until Rosias informed him, "'I'll tell you exactly why they're hitting you so much because I do the same thing to you!"
Or on a more informal level Rosias said, "'You're good, but you're also really bad.'"
DeBiedma says that the two took a "Moneyball" approach to Smash, describing the process as "scientific." The two carefully broke down the tactics and habits of the four other gods. DeBiedma is the only one of the group to use Jigglypuff, while the rest of them often lean heavily on Fox, a speedy, hard hitting character from the Star Fox series. Rosias parsed through each play style and realized that there wasn't a set formula for playing against one character but that, instead, each player molded Fox in their own way.
After a defeat at a tournament just two weeks before EVO, DeBiedma bought Rosias a plane ticket from Maine to Atlanta and the two spent every extra moment training. But it wasn't just a top-down analytical view of match-ups. During their sessions, Debiedma also got rid of the main thing that was holding him back: fear. In the past, Debiedma was one of the few players who stood up during his matches. It wasn't just to keep the blood flowing, but to sate his superstitious side. He mentions that, before he practiced with Rosias, he would become convinced that standing a certain way, or listening to a certain album before a match could bring triumph or doom.
"My biggest barrier is my own mentality, I don't need to worry about my fingers. He got the bad mentality out of my head."
DeBiedma mentions that his playing style is now based off a "flow chart of death."
"I'm going to do everything in my power to read your movement in the air to make sure I can make sure where you're going to mess up your movement and take advantage of it. You can choose whatever path you want, but you'll be dead at the end."
"That's the best way to play Melee," he adds, laughing.
Debiedma doesn't downplay the possibility of coaching taking over Smash and E-Sports as a whole, but what Rosias brought isn't something that any player could just hire or buy.
"He knows my play style more than anyone else in the world and I don't think I a lot of people can have that. I have a coach that's a trainer and a childhood friend, since the days of Pokémon cards."
The two weeks of intensive training, and the full six months of DeBiedma smashing through the competition not only gave DeBiedma the trophy he had come tantalizingly close to winning before, but an intense emotional reaction between himself and his best friend.
"Louis snuck up on the stage and, as I walked towards him, every single memory of me playing him for the last 10 years was flashing through my head. I was obviously thinking of all the times I thought I couldn't do it."
In the video clips of the moments after DeBiedma's win, you can see the two friends holding each other closely, DeBiedma hanging over the side of the stage, Rosias hugging him as the new world champion's tears streamed down his face.
Those pictures further cement why DeBiedma is the beardy, friendly face of Melee. The other "Five Gods" can occasionally come off as cold and calculating. When playing doubles with DeBiedma, Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, often sends full paragraphs of analytics, dissecting the play styles their opponents in upcoming matches. And DeBiedma's EVO rival, Lindgren, earned the nickname "The Swedish Sniper" for his play style. DeBiedma comes off as technical and focused while discussing the game itself, but there's an expressiveness and warmth that radiates through when other topics are brought up, most notably music. DeBiedma talks rapturously about Radiohead's newest album A Moon Shaped Pool and briefly debates whether it or Kanye West's Life of Pablo is the best record of 2016.
"Pablo's got some bangers, Pablo's got some amazing songs on it. And it really represents Kanye's lifestyle and life choices, the sort of messy aspect to it."
But he admits that the new Radiohead has to top his list; he's listened to Moon every day since it's been out. Moon came out just a few days before a tournament loss to Mango, and DeBiedma's first memories with the album came there, depressed and frustrated in a hotel room as the first bursting notes of album opener "Burn the Witch" came on.
"And it was like 'Oh my god -- everything makes sense now,'" he says with a laugh.
Many other top Melee players own YouTube channels filled with skill videos, streams of games and serious, in-depth analysis. DeBiedma's channel reveals a bit more about his character. For example, one supremely unhelpful video called "Hungrybox's Advanced Jigglypuff Tutorial" only lasts for five seconds and ends with DeBiedma choking on a sip of sparkling water.
"I'm a silly guy," he explains without a hint of remorse. There's also a video entitled "juan uses up-b as puff" reflecting the pink Pokémon's notoriety for singing with his own original composition. Though the internet may know him for his gaming prowess, Debiedma was in and out of choirs for 15 years, including a stint at an a-capella group at his college. Though he undercuts any other musical talents he may have. He briefly mentions a "really shitty EP" he made for his girlfriend, floating somewhere in the backwaters of the internet before shifting topics rapidly.
"My fingers are incredibly clumsy when it comes to guitar, the only things my fingers are good at are Melee."
He hints that he considered going into vocal performance when he graduated high school, but he ended up majoring in Telecommunications at the University of Florida on a whim.
"I told my parents, 'I'm going to do telecom!' And they were like 'Oh, that's nice' and I was like 'Oh shit I think I chose the wrong one.'"
The tepid response from his parents and a year of general education classes that left him bored and worried made the choice for Debiedma. In his freshman year he asked a friend "What's the hardest degree you have?" and they replied "Chemical Engineering." DeBiedma's response?
"Fuck it, let's do it."
After two smooth years in college, things briefly got rough with a series of tough classes and a time period where DeBiedma was juggling Smash tournaments and a brutal college curriculum.
"I just got my ass handed to me repeatedly."
DeBiedma credits his family, friends, and Melee for breaking him out of that ass-handing period. He notes that Melee, most of the time, is a positive, rather than consuming force in his life. It allows him to take his mind off of work or school, rather than being another arduous task in its own right.
"I make sure to make my Melee is a thing that I can always enjoy. I won't let it fully consume me and fully get to me otherwise I'm just going to hate what I'm doing."
That makes him something of a rarity in the E-Sport world. It's not uncommon to see professional gamers retire at surprisingly young ages, with 26 year-olds being considered veterans and having the same complaints as other athletes as their careers wind down.
"You can't tell me that each one of those people hasn't expressed at least once on social media 'Oh this is becoming so tiring, losing is so depressing, I can't believe this happened to me.' When you win and Smash is your full time job, it's really good for you, but it's probably relief. 'Oh boy I can eat another month, I can pay rent another month.'"
DeBiedma's full time job as a chemical engineer means he'll never have to make Melee the centerpiece of his life, unlike Mango (who streams games constantly to make a profit) or Swedish player Leffen (who has the E-Sport world's most lucrative contract with Red Bull).
Beyond just the mental taxes, there are also acute physical pains that go along with the job. Back in the '90s, Nintendo infamously had to pay damages to kids who had injured their hands while playing Mario Party due to some of the mini-games contained within demanding rapid finger and palm work to win. That's child's play compared to some of the injuries that can be sustained in Melee. DeBiedma uses Fox, one of the most technically complex and fastest characters in Melee, as an example.
"I think the Fox players are going to be the first ones to go as people get older," he notes. "If I had to give a time span for these current top players -- maybe they have another 10 years in them before the hand pains really set it. Like 'My fingers are locked up because I have nerve damage'."
But anytime he dives into more serious waters, he eventually tracks back to more lighthearted topics. While talking at length about his current number one rank, he regards it with a mixture of disbelief, gratitude and humor.
"I wasn't like 10 years old and like 'Oh I'm going to play 'Puff because one day I'll be pro.' That didn't happen at all. I played puff because I thought rest was fucking hilarious. My friends got so angry and I was like 'This is the most fun I've ever had playing video games.'"
And that same child-like sentiment comes off just by watching DeBiedma playing. There's an infectious joy to his style and fan interaction. Even during intense matches, he admits that his thought process can be basically summed up as, "I'm going to jump up so hard if I land this."
"It's all a big action movie, you have to make the most fun out of it," he says.
He mulls over this statement for a moment and decides on a better analogy.
"Melee's more of a series than a movie I guess. In movies there's a beginning a middle and an ending, but with Smash it's almost timeless, it's hard to do that with a game that every other month you get a climax. It's like National Treasure," he says laughing.
And, despite the fact DeBiedma will (probably) never deadpan about stealing the Declaration of Independence, there's a similar goofy, off-kilter charm to DeBiedma's story arch.
"Even as a Disney ending as this seems for me, I'm going to keep playing. I want to maintain this number one rank."