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Hungrybox: the Most Resilient Melee God

 

This piece originally appeared on Glixel, Rolling Stone’s video game vertical, in 2017.

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"God, I'm crying a lot, I'm sorry," said Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, one of five Super Smash Bros. Melee players known as "Gods" for their lopsided domination of the modern competitive scene. He wiped his eyes. Ten minutes earlier, he'd won DreamHack Winter 2015, earning $10,000. Though he’d been considered one of the best in the world since at least 2009, this was his first five-figure payout.

His interviewer, the ever-professional D'Ron "D1" Maingrette, hastened to reassure him. "It's fine! A lot of emotions are going through you right now."

"You know, my dad just passed away," said Debiedma. "It was my biological dad, and we – "

(Here Maingrette assumed the wide-eyed, pucker-mouthed universal expression of “Oh, shit.”)

Debiedma kept going. "I know it's personal stuff, but he told me: you'll never be the best. You'll be good, but you'll never be the best."

"Oh," said Maingrette.

"So," said Debiedma, raising a trembling arm, "I hope he sees me now."

Then he laughed. Or sobbed. It's hard to tell from the video.

///

Debiedma's dad was named Juan Daniel Debiedma. A talented musician and a master of five languages, he had a vigorous entrepreneurial spirit and a great head for numbers. He would have seemed, from his prodigious natural gifts, to be destined for success. It didn't hurt that he came from a wealthy family. His father, a former diplomat, owned a sprawling ranch in the Argentinian countryside.

Juan Manuel Debiedma, aka Hungrybox, owes a lot to his father. Debiedma, a straight-A student who studied chemical engineering, inherited Juan Daniel's quick mind and mathematical aptitude. He played piano as a child and sang a capella throughout college. Like his father, Debiedma is competitive, not so much because he likes to win, but because he hates to lose. It was even Juan Daniel who unknowingly introduced his son to his future career when the stepson of one of his associates showed Debiedma a fighting game called Super Smash Bros. Melee.

In other ways, though, Juan Daniel was a terrible influence. Debiedma remembers his father as an erratic, possibly bipolar, ferociously unhappy man, prone to fits of incoherent and unprovoked rage. He gives the example of a shopping trip in elementary school – his dad laughing and joking en route to the grocery store and back, only to succumb to an apoplectic fury when they returned home and a can of food appeared to be missing.

"I can't believe I brought you shopping! Losing things like this!" Juan Daniel bellowed, face the color of cartoon dynamite. "It was right here!"

At times like this, Debiedma would look to his mother to gauge whether he had actually done something wrong. She was as stalwart and dependable as Juan Daniel was tempestuous. (They found the missing can soon afterwards.)

Many of Juan Daniel's breakdowns could be traced to an obsession with money. "He would do anything possible to avoid paying any extra fee," says Debiedma. "He was so cheap with stuff. I think that rubbed off on me... He wanted to get rich quick. He was very impatient."

This turned out to be Juan Daniel's undoing. He squandered loans from his father on foolish investments, twice returned to Argentina to start businesses that promptly failed, and grew increasingly spiteful and miserable the longer success evaded him. Even the most promising business ventures tended to fall through when Juan Daniel's intransigence provoked multiplying disagreements.

The third time Juan Daniel left for Argentina was the last. Again his business ventures failed. Defeated, he moved in with his mother and stopped taking care of himself. His diabetes worsened. He died of a heart attack in November 2015, bitter, lonely, and mulishly stubborn until the very end.

"You'll never be the best," he'd told his son in 2009, before he left the final time. "You'll be good, but you'll never be the best."

Years later, that line is still bouncing around in Debiedma's head.

///

Most of Debiedma's childhood memories are fuzzy, but he remembers every detail of the first tournament he entered under the "Hungrybox" tag. It was a 2006 event at the Gigabits LAN Gaming Center in Orlando. On this fateful Saturday afternoon, sunbeams streamed through the cafe's wide windows and clashed with the blacklights inside, while Debiedma, 13 years old, faced off against Orlando's finest Smashers in the back room.

Between the blacklights, the teeming crowd, and the gigantic television's overwhelming volume ("The room shook when you landed a hit," Debiedma says), the atmosphere was multisensory mayhem. For the first time, Debiedma made it out of the group stage ("pools" in fighting game parlance) and into the tournament's main bracket.

"One of the strangest experiences of my life was getting good at Melee, because it happened so quickly," says Debiedma. "From getting destroyed by these guys to beating them – it was less than six months."

There was no concentrated exertion of intellect, no purposeful tape-watching and technique-studying. He simply refused to lose, and somehow that willpower sent the machinery in his brain sparking away quadruple-speed until the losing just... stopped.

"I was subconsciously learning these matchups," he says. "I wasn't like, OK, I'll go over here, I'll go over there – I was like, I'm gonna fucking beat this guy."

His friends couldn't touch him. The best players across Florida began to seek him out for practice. In 2009, at the age of sixteen, Debiedma placed third at a gigantic international tournament called Genesis. One year later, he won Apex 2010, another huge tournament, without dropping a set.

He was good. Really good. But after winning several tournaments in 2010, his streak broke. From 2011 to 2013, he won a handful of small events, but nowhere near enough to contend for the title of Best in the World.

For the first time in a long time, Debiedma was stuck.

///

Lucia Violante met Juan Daniel Debiedma in Argentina in the 1980s. He owned a currency exchange business; she was a flight attendant seeking US dollars for an upcoming trip. She came by the shop three or four times before he invited her out for coffee.

The early years of the relationship were wonderful. The pair traveled around the world. They moved, got married, and had three children, all boys. The newlyweds spent countless hours at the Debiedma family ranch, enchanted by the drowsy warmth of the countryside, the drift of grazing cattle.  

Juan Manuel Debiedma was born on June 21, 1993 – the exact day he was scheduled to arrive. He was an exceptionally bright child. By one and a half, he'd begun learning to read.

“I’d tell him, ‘bring me The Beauty and the Beast,’” his mom says. “He knew two hundred titles!”

Outside the Debiedma household, trouble brewed. In December 1994, Mexico devalued the peso, sending a shockwave throughout the Latin American world. The Argentinian economy contracted four percent, and a dozen banks went out of business. Though the government reacted swiftly to counteract the crash, the political atmosphere suggested a gathering storm. Fearing oppression, extortion, and kidnapping, the Debiedmas left for America.

The problems didn't end there. Juan Daniel didn't like his new home. He chafed under rules and regulations he'd never contended with as an entrepreneur in Argentina. As his behavior grew erratic, it fell to his wife to support the family.

"My mom's always been super clutch, like me," says Hungrybox. "When my dad left for Argentina, she put every last penny into a house so she could flip it, sell it... she was there painting it, cleaning it, mowing the lawn, doing everything herself, and she was able to sell it for double the price."

It's an almost unbelievable tale: abandoned by her husband, with three boys to raise on her own, Lucia Debiedma started a real estate business.

"I really learned the hard way," Lucia Debiedma says. "I started buying foreclosures in the courthouse. I was the only woman. It was very hard to compete with men, buying foreclosures... beginning from scratch, not knowing very well the language... but I had this goal: to give my kids a better future."

The second time her husband left, he took the money she'd made from the real estate business with him. You can imagine how she felt when he returned, penniless, begging for forgiveness. Somehow, she found it in herself to give him another chance. "Obviously, he was the father of my kids, so I took him back, and we started again doing the real estate business," she says, laughing. "And then, after two or three years, he took all the money again!"

The fact that she can laugh about this is almost incomprehensible. The third time her husband left, he forged her signature to take out credit cards, cut off all communication, emptied the bank account, and vanished. Despite this devastating blow, Lucia Debiedma survived. Here she is in 2017, seemingly invincible, with a thriving real estate business and three successful sons – and somehow, despite everything her ex-husband did, she has managed to forgive him.

That’s resilience.

///

The thing about Hungrybox – not Juan Manuel Debiedma, but Hungrybox, his Melee alter ego – is that he's never been the type to overwhelm opponents with dazzling kaleidoscope aggression. He's methodical, crafty, patient – a Venus flytrap, not a fly swatter. His character, the pink puffball Jigglypuff, is tremendously fragile and slow on the ground, but capable of dishing out stupefying damage.

"You have to remember how easily you can die," Debiedma says, "but you also have to remember how afraid people are of you."

The high risk/high reward nature of Jigglypuff means that victory is never totally out of reach. There’s always a chance to come back. To capitalize on this chance, though, you have to believe there’s a chance. This may be why no other Jigglypuff player comes remotely close to Debiedma’s level. Hungrybox’s greatest asset isn’t hand-speed, IQ, or game knowledge – it’s the simple fact that he never, ever gives up.

Exhibit A: at EVO 2016, the biggest Melee tournament in history, Debiedma lost in the semifinals to Justin "Plup" McGrath, a player generally considered to be his inferior. But Melee tournaments are double-elimination, which means everyone has to lose twice before they're out. Debiedma clawed back through the loser's bracket and into the grand finals, where he faced Adam "Armada" Lindgren, arguably the best Smash player of all time.

In the grand finals of the previous year's EVO, Lindgren had beaten Debiedma 3-2; soon, with the series tied 2-2 and a hefty advantage for Lindgren in game five, history appeared to be repeating itself. Debiedma was one hit away from defeat; Lindgren still had two lives. The battle looked hopeless. Lindgren, after all, was just as patient, methodical, and merciless as Debiedma. All he had to do was close it out.

///

"When you are in crisis," Lucia Debiedma says, "you don't know what you are capable to do."

She's trying to find the words to explain how she pressed on, raised three kids, and ran a business by herself, when everything in the universe seemed to be aligned against her.

"You find a strength from within," she says. "You think you are dead, and you are reborn from your ashes."

///

In the fifth game of the grand finals of EVO 2016, down an impossible deficit against a player known for unshakable nerves, Juan Manuel Debiedma found a kill. Tied one life to one, he bobbed and weaved, gaze fixed on the flickering screen.

The crowd roared. The shoutcasters screamed themselves hoarse. Two hundred thousand Twitch.tv viewers held their breath.

Lindgren made a mistake, and Debiedma murdered him.

EVO 2016 didn't end there, of course. Melee's "lose twice to be eliminated" rule means the finalist from the winner's side of the bracket always gets two chances to win. Lindgren and Debiedma launched into a second best-of-five series. Again Lindgren surged to a lead, this time two games to one. All he had to do was win one more.

Debiedma had already played five grueling sets that day, three of them back-to-back. Melee is an intensely physical game, requiring hundreds of precise inputs every minute, and when exhaustion begins to set in, players' abilities drop off dramatically. This is one reason why the winner's bracket player often comes back in the second set of grand finals and locks it up against their flagging opponent – since they don't have to fight through the loser's bracket, the winner's-side player tends to have a bit more gas in the tank.

Not this time. Debiedma hung in, eked out a razorblade win to tie the series 2-2, and closed out strong in the final game.

When Lindgren's final life went up in a burst of yellow light, Debiedma placed his controller down and stood. His hands went to his mouth. They came away from his mouth and went behind his head.

"Oh my God," he said, though the words were lost in the thunder of the crowd.

Quibble all you want about Debiedma's place among the all-time greats. At this moment, on this stage, Juan Manuel Debiedma was the best player in the world.

He lay down on the stage and cried.

///

In middle school, Debiedma once tried to forge his mother's signature for a permission slip and botched it, producing a scribble that vaguely resembled Pac-Man. Something about the shape caught his eye. Bored in class – especially social studies – he began to draw it in his notebooks. Doodled other stuff, too, but kept coming back to the signature-shape. Drew it over and over, iterating unconsciously on the design. Eventually the drawing became a box with a jagged mouth. Two dots, signifying eyes, originated from the 'i's in his mother's signature – Lucia Debiedma.

One day, a classmate asked what he was drawing.

"A hungry box," said Debiedma.