One of the mightiest 'Melee' players was forged through grit, doggedness, and family drama
One of the mightiest 'Melee' players was forged through grit, doggedness, and family drama
"God, I'm crying a lot, I'm sorry," said Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, one of five Super Smash Bros. Melee players (the others being Adam "Armada" Lindgren, Joseph "Mango" Marquez, Kevin "PPMD" Nanney and Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman) 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 2009, this was his first five-figure payout.
His interviewer, D'Ron "D1" Maingrette, hastened to reassure him. "It's fine! A lot of emotions are going through you right now."
"My dad just passed away, you know?" said Debiedma. "It was my biological dad, and we – "
Maingrette's eyes widened. He was clearly thinking "Oh, shit."
"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.' I hope he sees me now!"
Then he laughed. Or sobbed. It's hard to tell from the video.
Father to a God
Debiedma's dad, Juan Daniel Debiedma, was a master of five languages, a talented musician, and a born entrepreneur with a great head for numbers. From his prodigious natural gifts, he would have seemed 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.
23-year-old Juan Manuel Debiedma, alias Hungrybox, owes a lot to his father. Debiedma, a straight-A student who studied chemical engineering in college, 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.
In many ways, though, Juan Daniel was a terrible influence. Debiedma remembers his father as an erratic, 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 to find a can of food missing.
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 family on foolish investments, twice returned to Argentina – leaving his family – to start businesses that promptly failed, and grew increasingly spiteful the longer success evaded him. 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 a young Juan Manuel in 2009, before he left for the third and 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.
The Meteoric Rise of Hungrybox
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. Sunlight streamed through the cafe's 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 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."
It's not like he did it on purpose, either. There was no concentrated exertion of intellect, no purposeful tape-watching and technique-studying. He just stubbornly refused to lose, and somehow that willpower sent the machinery in his brain sparking away quadruple-speed until suddenly the losing 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 steamrolling several tournaments in 2010, his streak broke. From 2011 to 2013, he won a handful of events, but nowhere near enough to contend for the title of Best in the World.
The Beauty and the Beast
Juan Manuel Debiedma was born in Argentina 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 abruptly 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. The political atmosphere suggested a gathering storm. Fearing upheaval, the Debiedmas soon left for America.
The problems didn't end there. Juan Daniel didn't like his new home. 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... beginning from scratch, not knowing 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. When he returned he was penniless, begging for forgiveness – and Lucia gave him another chance. "Obviously, he was the father of my kids, so I took him back," 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 a testament to her strength. 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. Yet despite this devastating blow, Lucia Debiedma survived. Here she is in 2017 with a thriving real estate business and three successful sons – and somehow, despite everything her ex-husband did, she forgives him.
That’s – and this is where the parallels with Hungrybox become brilliantly clear – 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 Melee 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.
You have to remember how easily you can die, but you also have to remember how afraid people are of you.
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 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.
Out of the Ashes
"When you are in crisis," Lucia Debiedma says, "you don't know what you are capable of." 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, emotionless gaze fixed on the flickering screen.
The crowd roared. The shoutcasters screamed themselves hoarse. Two hundred thousand Twitch 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 a minute, and when exhaustion begins to set in, players' abilities drop off dramatically. This is one reason why the winner's bracket player will often come back in the second set of grand finals and lock 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 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. "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 that particular moment, on that stage, his father's words were wrong. 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.