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Melee Pro Hungrybox Talks About the Game's History, Future, and Going eSports Full-Time

Team Liquid's professional Smash Bros. player talks to us about the future of Smash, the Switch, and his transition to full-time eSports player.

Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma is a veteran Super Smash Bros. Melee player and almost unanimously considered to be the best Jigglypuff player of all time. Sponsored by Team Liquid, he currently sits at the #2 spot on the international Super Smash Bros. Melee Rank. Having quit his job as an engineer in October in pursuit of a full-time career in eSports, Debiedma's now prepping to fight for that #1 spot in 2017.

After suffering a minor fracture in his index finger, Hungrybox had his Genesis 4 seed placement moved from second to fifth. This movement placed him in a more difficult bracket, but the resilient Smasher still rounded out at 4th place in the tournament. 

Hungrybox spends most of his off-time streaming for his fans, but I managed to snag an hour of his time to talk about the community's future, Genesis 4, and Nintendo's "new" direction.

Bryant Pereira (BP): Melee is only getting more popular. The scene is getting bigger, the prize pools are growing, and the players are getting better. What specifically sets apart Melee from other eSports games -- and what will make it last another 15 years?

HungryBox (HB): I think Melee’s history is going to determine its future. It’s a rare game, it’s highly competitive, it has massive depth to it, and it was never intended to be played online in the first place. So when old school players wanted to compete against each other and see who was the best, you couldn’t do it behind a screen. You had to go in person and compete in an actual venue and meet your opponents face-to-face. There was a very human aspect to that in terms of getting better and supporting one another.

Of course, there’s always rivalries and shit talk and all that, but what’s cool about Melee is the fact that the players themselves organized the events and it was grass roots to start with...created an environment where people feel welcome, for the most part, and where people desire to improve on a massive basis. They want to be acknowledged for their skill by their peers, and it becomes a very fun climb to do so.

Because Melee isn’t exactly a game that you can master in a day -- it takes
years to master -- and that’s what makes it so interesting. That something can be as intricate as chess but as entertaining as, you know, watching UFC. What makes Melee unique from the other Smash games is that speed, that ability to move however you truly want to move and how you want to express yourself in the game.

BP: Unlike other major eSports, Melee doesn’t get any patches or updates, so players can only keep digging deeper into what they already have. Where do you see Melee down the road in terms of unlocked potential?

HB: Well, Melee was patched only once -- officially between NTSC and PAL. It was mainly nerfs that they did, and it was an attempt to do it. I think if they kept releasing a new version every year we would have a very different Melee than there is right now. But you’re right, [the] NTSC version has been unpatched for 15 years. So now, we started discovering new things, new aspects of the game that people didn’t know existed. Shield dropping is a good example that was discovered a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t utilized until recently.

It’s like [the developers] put all these very unique aspects of a fighting game without releasing it into a guide or telling people how to do it. It’s as if they knew the game would exist this long and eventually people would discover it and figure it out. But it took a community this large and with this much passion to actually delve that deep into the game.

Now we have frame data for everything; data diggers who go into the game and count the individual frames and pixels a certain move has. All this data allows a brand new player to improve much faster than when the game first came out. So, we have a lot of up and comers now who are able to go toe-to-toe with even top players, Syrox is a good example.

The biggest new resource -- and the evident indicator that this is one of the most passionate communities for the game we play -- is that members of the community created online Melee. Anther was a player who created Smash Ladder, a website that allows you to match make other people, and then the entire Faster Melee and Dolphin community created an emulator that not only emulates it perfectly but also so that you can play against other people around the world. That is a massive undertaking and shows you how incredible the community can be.

BP: So let’s get this out of the way -- people were worried about your finger injury from dodgeball, and even with a more difficult seeding, you were able to prove that this was nothing but a minor setback by placing 4th at Genesis 4. How do you feel about tournament organizers changing seeds for participators? Not only in your own situation, but for other players as well?

HB: I’m gonna show you this first. [*lifts plate of soup with fractured index finger*] I couldn’t do that five weeks ago. It’s a very small fracture that healed very quickly, as I’ve told it would. Was I playing perfect with the broken finger? Maybe not, but there’s no way to tell because even though I had to switch to my middle finger grip, it was a whole new undertaking.

I had to relearn a lot of movement options...shield dropping, L-cancelling, wavedashing, that whole thing. When I was in the bracket ,I only lost to Mang0...and Mang0 again. I lost to Mang0 twice at Genesis 4 and he got 2nd place. So at the very worst, I still think I deserved third seed, which is what I said I should have gotten. I also 3-0’d Plup that tournament, which I haven’t done in I think a whole year.

My point is that results in brackets aren’t proper indicators of how well someone is playing because of an injury. Melee at the top level is so variant that you can lose because you got outplayed, not just because you’re playing with a style you’re not familiar with. I made sure to practice with it and made sure that I was as close as possible to par, and at the end of the day, I was.

I still do think that I was seeded unfairly, and I’m hoping that these tournaments will continue to keep my #2 rank, which is what I think it is now. Granted, at MVG I got fourth place, losing to Wizz, and third to Mew2King at UGC, but that was fresh off the finger break. I’m pretty sure if I fought either of them at Genesis I would have beaten them, and now I am fully back to form.

Summit has thankfully given me the #2 seed, which is really nice, and if I still do badly there I will agree to being seeded lower. If I hadn’t said anything online on Twitter, I would’ve been seeded second. So now, I’m less encouraged to be honest about my playstyle...because now if I have an injury or something holding me back I’m not going to mention it.

BP: What do you think about the direction Nintendo is taking with the Switch and the Smash Community in general?

HB: The Switch, I think, is going to be a massive success in the consumer market. I’ll always compare it to the DS Lite, which was so much cooler and so much slicker than the DS. The Switch is like the Wii U Lite. It’s a much more sexy, efficient, well put together Wii U that is more suitable for an environment like today. This has the potential to be the first true mobile console.

With Smash, I don’t know why they wouldn’t put a Smash game on there. There’s rumors about them porting Smash 4, about a Virtual Console release for Melee. Sure, I’ll use a tiny Joycon, I’ll use whatever they offer me. I just want to be able to play my favorite iteration of my favorite game on Nintendo’s new premiere console.

BP: What are your thoughts on the future of the Smash 4 community? With the Wii U going out of production, do you feel like fans will have to wait until the inevitable Switch Smash to come out?

HB: I’m not too worried about that because CRTs were a fad that was supposed to die when flat screens started coming out, and we still have them today. Enough Wii U’s exist and enough players have bought them, so even if they don’t release Smash on the Switch, it will still be huge for a while.

However, what would kill the current iteration of Smash on the Wii U would be if they released a brand new Smash for the Switch. All the players would move to that because it will most likely be similar to Smash for the Wii U, but Melee will never be affected by that because there isn’t a new iteration of Melee. Project M was the only thing that ever came close. The Smash 4 community is essentially the Brawl community plus a bunch of new people. It’s a lot more well oriented, a lot more rigid, the game is better, a lot better than Brawl. I think the game will be similar to Melee and last another 10-15 years.

BP: Mods like Project M were major successes. With Smash 4 already getting texture and costume mods, how do you feel about a potential Project M-like Mod for the Wii U?

HB: That would be an extremely interesting game to play, and I would play the hell out of it. PM, I think, is the most recognizable fighting game mod of all time. I think it would be a really cool thing to see, as long as it's not so amazing that it tears the Melee community apart.

BP: What impact do you think a Melee VC or remaster would have on the community?

HB: I think the best possible scenario would be for Nintendo to officially re-release Melee on the virtual console. They would add an online capacity on it, where you would pay each month for good, crisp, online. It would have to be emulated very properly, with minimized input lag.

New characters...maybe...but the moment you add a new character, Melee, our current version, becomes obsolete. That’s scary...I don’t know if we want that. What we want are two identical versions of Melee, NTSC, that we can play on the Switch and new stages...at best. Having new stages would be cool, but even having that could make the current version of Melee obsolete.

So it comes down to what version of Melee will continue being Melee. How many changes can you add until it becomes a new thing? It’s hard to tell, the more I talk about it the less I want it. What Nintendo has to do for Melee is acknowledge it again and release it exactly as is. Exactly. As. Is. Give us a controller adaptor, virtual console, no touches. Online mode at best, but no changes that would affect a tournaments results as they would have been.

BP: Who do you see as your biggest competition this year in Smash?

HB: I think that right now, Armada is at the top, but I was the last person to be above him. So he’s my rival right now. My entire year is going to be dedicated to beating him, more than anything. I want to beat him more than anything now. Mang0, I always enjoy playing him. When it comes down to it, me and him lose to each other if one of us lacks the discipline. If Mang0 is being impatient, he loses. If I feel like I can go toe-to-toe with Mang0’s speed, I lose. If we both play to our strengths, that’s when we have a great set. So we have to respect each other, acknowledge each other's strengths, and play to our own strengths and not try to be someone we’re not.

Leffen’s really good. I think playing against him is like a mix between Armada and Mang0 that might be a little more antsy. Playing against Mew2King is...annoying because he plays like a robot, like a computer, but every computer program has a way to beat it. Honestly, any of the top guys right now are a big threat. I can’t say I’m definitely going to beat this person anymore. I don’t think any of us can say that anymore because we know each other so well at this point, it’s not about past knowledge, it’s about who can improvise jazz best.

BP: Looking back on the past few months where you pursued eSports full time, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned and what do you hope to achieve in 2017?

HB: It’s been an enlightening four months. I’m learning a lot of things. When you quit your job to do your passion because you can live off it, you want to make sure that you’re not making what you love labor. You want to make sure work is passion -- not labor. I’ve become very close to accidentally making Smash labor in the past couple months because I thought it was everything I needed.

I gave up an engineering job when I was up in Alabama and Georgia, and I learned a lot of things from that job. It was a great experience. When I realized that I wanted to see Melee to it’s fullest, it was a bit of an off-season, I had a lot of free time, and I would stream. Streaming can be really good, but it can be a lot of work too. You’re always questioning yourself whether you are doing everything you can to maximize your audience. You’re questioning if you’re entertaining enough, if people are liking you enough, if you seem honest or fake.

It’s funny because I wanted to be an anchor when I was younger, and I realized I’m kind of doing it now as I speak. A lot of it is being yourself and having fun, but it’s not always easy to have fun when you have an expectation of what you want to be. The best way I’ve found to do that is to not care about that...but to simply enjoy what you’re doing.

I started a coding boot camp because I want to be constantly learning. I think when you’re not learning a new thing, and focusing only on one thing, it hurts you a lot. It would hurt my Melee abilities. I think because I’m now exercising my mind constantly, my Melee stays fresh.

I’m setting up another net for myself. I sort of cut the hinges off one safety net, which was my job, and now I’m in the process of making another one for myself so I can be more comfortable and so I can play Melee for Team Liquid with the least obtrusion possible. So outside life mimics your life in Melee, it mimics your playstyle, it mimics your movement. How someone plays Melee can tell you a lot about what they’re going through in life and it’s another example of how the game is timeless.

Hungrybox will be participating in Smash Summit over the weekend of the Switch's release, but he said he will have the new console waiting for him at home when he returns. Before parting ways, we spoke about his most anticipated title, ARMS, and the music festival circuit across the nation this year.

I'd like to thank Hungrybox for taking the time to come out and meet with me. After running into him at a local restaurant, he eagerly agreed to speak with me minutes after my e-mail. You can follow him on Twitter @LiquidHBox and on Twitch

Published Feb. 26th 2017

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