Hungrybox’s rise among the ‘Gods’ of Melee

Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma long been considered one of the best Super Smash Bros Melee players in the world. He was one of the original “five gods” of Melee and always a threat to do well.

For a while, though, he was hardly ever considered the favorite to win a tournament if all the best players were present. Hungrybox became a top player in 2009, solidified as a god the next year after a dominant run with Jigglypuff.

As players caught up and learned to play against his Jigglypuff, Hungrybox in 2014 and most of 2015 seemed to have trouble threatening to win major tournaments. Being ranked fifth in the Melee It On Me rankings in 2014, players called him the gatekeeper to the pantheon, and as Kris “Toph” Aldenderfer once said on stream, ”Gatekeepers don’t move.”

But now Hungrybox is the best American Smasher, behind only Sweeden’s Adam “Armada” Lindgren in the overall power rankings. It’s been a steady path to the top for Hungrybox, and it all started with DreamHack Winter 2015.

“I used to think that I depended on PAL to beat these top guys, then after Battle of 5 Gods, I realized I could do it.”

Hungrybox happily said those words in an interview with Slingshot two weeks ago, still relatively fresh off his win at the Battle of the Five Gods in March. PAL, the version of the game used in Europe, was played during Dreamhack Winter 2015, the tournament that kicked off Hungrybox’s recent run of success with his Jigglypuff.

The fact that Dreamhack used the PAL version is important. There were a couple balance changes that affected the top-tier characters of the metagame. Fox, Shiek, Marth, and Falco were all nerfed, identified by the game designers as a little too powerful on the NTSC version (used in North America). Thankfully for Hungrybox, the designers shared the same terrible sentiment for Jigglypuff that the community did in the early days of Melee, keeping her the same as she was in NTSC.

Hungrybox was not the favorite to win Battle of the Five Gods, as Armada, the No. 1 player in the world, stood in everyone’s way. Hungrybox at the time was heating up. He had placed second in the previous two major tournaments when facing Armada.

He finally got over the hump, defeating Armada 3-1 in the grand finals.

“At Big House I was like, OK, I can beat everyone but Armada, but that’s what I cared about,” Hungrybox said. “I needed to beat these top players. I wanted to win. No more getting second. No more getting third. I wanted to win. That was the last step.”

What changed?

By the time he got to DreamHack, Hungrybox had already begun to change.

Last summer, Hungrybox graduated from college and took time off work to concentrate on Smash and streaming. During that time, he played well but kept falling short against Armada and Joseph “Mango” Marquez.

“I would go to tournaments, beat the guys I usually beat and then lose to the guys I usually lose to, but lose even worse,” Hungrybox said. “Armada and Mango would beat me even worse than before. I didn’t get it. I was focusing on Melee full time. Why can’t I win?”

He started working with analyst, coach and and long-time friend, Luis “Cpt. Crunch” Rosias to figure out how exactly to beat Armada. Hungrybox has a hard time analyzing videos to improve, and keeps most of the analysis to his coach. Nevertheless, the two went to work looking for trends in matches and tweaks to make.

Secondly, Hungrybox changed his mindset. He had to think like a champion, which he admitted isn’t necessarily something you know until you’ve done it, but he knew he needed to get there.

The lack of outside worry helped the process. Alongside Smash, Hungrybox picked up a full time job, so that losing a tournament didn’t mean he’d fail to pay the rent. Winning could become simply a prize to reward himself for all the hard work done. Not worrying about that outside pressure helped Hungrybox get in the right frame of mind.

“I needed to adopt a champion’s mindset,” Hungrybox said. “You can’t adopt that until you win a national, by yourself, and that was DreamHack for me.”

Tactically, Hungrybox is starting to shape the metagame around him. Daniel “Tafokints” Leemade some good points in a recent video, in which he talks explains how exactly Hungrybox is doing it. Tafokints explains that, while the general consensus is that Fox is heavily favored against Jigglypuff, because of the high actions per minute (APM) required to reach Fox’s full potential, and the relatively low APM needed for Jigglypuff, this plays in Hungrybox’s favor. Tournaments are usually all day events, and stamina is a very important attribute needed to win a major tournament.

Being able to play Fox at his highest level over a long period of time can often result in hand or controller issues. Due to the fact that Hungrybox has now optimized the Jigglypuff/ Fox matchup to the next level, it now requires the Fox player to be at his absolute peak game. This puts the burden on players like Armada and Mango to improve the character matchup, rather than Hungrybox.

Just the beginning

Finally beating Armada was the first step in his goal to become the best smasher in the world.  The real test was going to be back at home in the United States on NTSC, where Fox’s recovery isn’t hampered and his up smash is beyond deadly. First up was Genesis 3, and the pressure for Hungrybox was on.

“I went to Genesis and I was very stressed the entire tournament,” Hungrybox said. “You could see it in my play. I was very jittery.”

Hungrybox made headway through his journey to become a complete competitor at Dreamhack, but he wasn’t quite there yet. The pressure was on much more this tournament because of his recent win, something Hungrybox hadn’t felt in a while. It has always been the same story, with Armada and Mango at the top. Now it was his turn to feel what it was like to have the biggest target on his back. Hungrybox’s nerves got to him and finished third to Mango and Armada. It was back to the drawing board.

Skeptics blamed Hungrybox’s Dreamhack win on PAL and said it was a fluke. He knew it wasn’t just PAL. He knew he could win on NTSC. No one in the world has played the Puff/Fox matchup more than him. He should be winning. No more gimmicks. No more ledge stalling. It was Hungrybox’s time in the spotlight.

“I have now these 2016 fundamentals, pretty much that I can use now,” Hungrybox said. “If I have the right mindset, I can access all those tools.The more flustered I am, if I have a bad mindset, those tools are foggy or hazy. I can’t remember what they are. Clarity is very important there.”

Hungrybox rebounded by winning the Battle of the Five Gods and Pound 2016, putting the rest of the top players on notice. Including DreamHack, Hungrybox has four wins in his last six tournaments and hasn’t placed lower than third in any of them.

He finished second — to Armada again — in last weekend’s Smash Summit 2, but the message is clear: Hungrybox is no longer the gatekeeper.