A Look Inside the Box

June 27 2017
By Brandon Bernica
Photos by Brittany Lattanzio and Damian Estrada

As the Pomona, California sky exchanged the sun for a cool dusk, all I had to do was listen.

And listen. And listen some more.

At the tail end of my interview with Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma, ranked 2nd among Melee’s pantheon of greatness, I could sense that he wanted to say more. We were pressed for time, since he was already 8 minutes late to his doubles pool for the day, but I knew there was something he wanted to get out.

I wanted to draw out a piece of the real Hungrybox, as raw and unfiltered as he was comfortable with. So to cap off our interview, I asked him a question that practically begged for recourse. At this point, he could ramble on about the weather for all I cared; I just wanted a peek inside the Juan that the cameras don’t capture.

I wanted to let him—not the media, not the fans, not his fellow Smashers—tell his own story, whether that would portray him as a martyr, a villain, or anything in between.

“Do you feel misunderstood by a lot of people?”

In a way, I had just given him an alibi against those that questioned his virtue— and trust me, there have been many—whether that be in Smash or as a person.

“I feel like I misunderstand myself,” he replies with an introspective tone.

For a man unafraid to express his emotions, that was as vulnerable as I had ever seen him before.

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There’s something funny about the way the spotlight can exaggerate someone. You might watch, say, a player like Armada combo someone with the precision of a robot, and you might even buy into the idea that he is actually made of spare wires and fuses. Then, you read his Twitter account and realize that he’s as encouraging and empathetic towards the community as the next guy, perhaps more.

This is exactly what I realized about Hungrybox when I first met him at a recent Southern California regional tournament. I watched him play card games with fans outside the venue, interact with a plethora of other top players, and even keep to himself whenever he got the chance. Minus the Team Liquid jersey he had on and the ornate Smash Rivalries controller he was playing with, you would have assumed that he was any other aspiring Smasher looking to climb the ranks.

That just the phrase that’s usually tied to Hungrybox like a ball and chain: “You would have assumed that…” It’s just one indicator of how little the public thinks it knows about him.

“I can’t stand assumptions,” he tells me in our sit-down, “I can’t stand armchair psychologists thinking that they know me or any top player.”

Maybe I was venturing a little too far into the deep end? It didn’t matter, anyways.

See, interviewing is like a delicate dance—a dance of trust. You take the lead as your partner (the interviewee) works out the choreography. At first, it can feel like an awkward waltz, an out-of-rhythm tango, or a staccato fox trot.

Your hope is that the two of you build a solid rapport. Not only do you want your subject to master each step, but you’re dying for them to wrest control away from you and make the dance their own, even if that takes you through some twists and turns you weren’t prepared for.

That’s why I set up a round of quirky get-to-know-you questions—basically my personal version of those old blind dating game shows where each contestant describes himself with as much flavor as possible. I wanted to give him the chance to spiel in whatever direction he desired.

Just like any other type of box, there are plenty of sides of Hungrybox that might take you by surprise. I peppered him with some light-hearted questions to get a little insight:

  • He spent much of his recent residency in Alabama watching Bojack Horseman, usually with a side of wine.

  • He claims that one of his most exorbitant purchases includes a $120 pair of bright red Adidas (he attributes this to a frugal upbringing, even though he’s made over $150,000 in career earnings).

  • One of his most interesting theories is that memes are our current-age caveman drawings that people will study in school by the year 3000. Not sure I’m on that same boat yet…

  • Does he ever watch his EVO win vs. Armada to console himself on a bad day? “When I’m having a bad day, I wouldn’t necessarily say I watch videos of myself,” he says, “but if I’m ever on YouTube and I see that in the “best videos” (section), I watch it every time…” (Oh, and as for his EVO trophy? It’s got a comfortable perch on a trophy shelf inside his parents’ home).

And yes, he still claims that he only “love-tapped” Blur’s TV.

I also wanted to see how he viewed his fellow Smash elite outside of the game:

  • Most likely to survive on a deserted island? Mew2King, because “he’s a robot and just needs oil.”

  • Best hair? “I’m not going to say Leffen for that one,” he quips, before admitting, “it’s Leffen, or me right when I get out of the barbershop.”

  • Player he’d least like to ride shotgun with? It’s a toss-up between Mang0 or Mew2King, both of whom he’s never seen drive before.

  • Player he’s closest to? That was a layup for him: his coach, Crunch. “We’re like brothers to each other,” he says. “We’re really similar in a lot of ways, maybe too similar. We butt heads a lot…sometimes he has to be patient with me and vice versa, but I think that’s what makes the best team possible.”

As tongue-in-cheek as his responses were, he’s always viewed his competitors with a level of respect and camaraderie.

“I view all top players as compañeros—like colleagues, I guess—because we’re all studying the science of Melee. There’s a lot of really cool people. Everyone’s cool when you get to know them.”

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Controversy hasn’t been shy to follow Hungrybox around throughout his career. You’d be hard-pressed to find one of his sets on Twitch without someone in the chat spamming ResidentSleeper emotes (aside: ResidentSleeper is an emote that expresses boredom on Twitch). Hungrybox’s oft-patient style of play has drawn the ire of many over the years, but it wasn’t until a recent set at The Bigger Balc when he finally had enough.

He was up against Army, one of SoCal’s premier Ice Climber players. The Puff-IC’s matchup is dicey to begin with: to avoid getting 0-to-death wobbled by the Ice Climbers, Hungrybox’s Jigglypuff camped the platforms and attempted to run the clock down and win by percentage. It’s a strategy that works, but it’s also one that isn’t fun to watch.

After winning grand finals, he made his way to the interview desk. You could almost feel the frustration brewing beneath his disgruntled expression.

He couldn’t help but vent for the next 9 minutes.

Why did people think Puff was so hard to beat?

How could people be mad at someone for camping against a character that can kill you off of one grab?

How stupid is the idea of a ledge grab limit?!?

It was unbridled emotion, and he was spilling it out everywhere. You could even call it the antithesis of another complaint Hungrybox hears all the time: he celebrates too hard in the faces of his defeated opponents. Known as “pop-offs”, they can be considered disrespectful and boisterous if done excessively. Of all the pop-offs in the history of Smash, Hungrybox’s are among the most memorable and outrageous.

I remembered our interview from the previous day, and immediately I knew where he was coming from.

It had less to do with Hungrybox and Melee, and it had more to do with Juan DeBiedma the person. Growing up, showing emotion was not only a cultural norm for him—it was a cultural expectation.

“I think that people are so uncomfortable with emotion, especially in this country,” he told me. “I’m Argentinian by heart. I’m from a different culture. I always show emotion because it’s natural. I’m not hiding anything. People take it as: ‘Oh, he wants attention.’

“I think it’s the most borderline asinine assumption to make. Just let me do what I do”

What struck me most, however, was what he followed that up with.

“I know it’s histrionic, and I know I can be loud or socially aggressive sometimes,” he continued, “but it’s honest emotion, it’s pent up, and playing Puff under a lot of pressure does that.”

He delivered each phrase he spoke with growing fervor, as if he was trying to exhale each criticism against him in short breaths. There was clarity in his voice, though, the kind of clarity that comes from someone who’s come to terms with his own faults, too.

Just as his sets usually play out, he adapted over the years. He knew that his mentality was the key to dominating the field and handling the naysayers. Even today, he still spends most of his time prepping his mindset for tournaments, rather than trying to practice as much tech skill as possible.

“I focus more on being happy, because if you focus all on your game and on your play, and not on your mindset, when you get there and you’re not able to execute the thing(s) that you practice, you not only lose, but you have a mass level of frustration.

“But I feel like if you’re happy and you lose, if everything else in life has a balance—a zen—to it, then losing really isn’t that bad.”

Hearing that he has a “zen” is probably unusual for people. Most see him as a fiery competitor that will do anything—and I mean anything—to win. No, this was someone in tune with themselves, a far cry from what even I believed he would be like.

It clicked for me.

That’s his recipe for winning. Heck, that’s his recipe for life: no matter how much emotion he shows, he’s learned, and is learning, to channel it better than anyone else (and at the right times).

So then, how does he still misunderstand himself?

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“I feel like I misunderstand myself, as crazy as that sounds.” There wasn’t even a trace of hesitation in his tone of voice.

“Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong, but I play this game for a lot of reasons…I think I’ve treated this role as a top player not always in the best way.”

I wasn’t going to stop him. This was his catharsis, however short it may be.

“It’s not because I’m inherently a sh*tty person or anything like that…I think I’m just young. I think I’m always naive. I can learn one thing one day and then still not know about everything else because of it. It just raises up more questions.”

It comes to show how far we always are from perfection. We spend our lives with our heads up, chasing dreams and goals without looking down to see the small steps we take. We ignore the faults that keep us from improving.

But just as there was intent in his words, there was purpose behind his passion. He had a self-awareness that even he might not give himself credit for. He’s still learning, after all.

Melee has become much more than a game for Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma—it’s become a vehicle for personal growth.

“You can’t make the game give you pain because you’re in for self-destruction at that point,” he points out to me. “People stress ‘optimize this, optimize that’, and that’s good…but man, why are you playing Melee in the first place if it doesn’t make you happy? That’s more important than any[thing] money could ever get you.”

He’d go on to win Smash n’ Splash 3 the following week. Something tells me that that’s just icing on the cake for him, though.

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