Sometimes, when Juan Debiedma gets recognized, fans scream. Sometimes, they ask for an autograph. Sometimes, they just whisper “Hi, Hungrybox,” then walk away.
Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma is the No.1 ranked “Super Smash Bros. Melee” player in Florida. Some Friday nights, if you’re lucky, you can find him playing Smash — the game that transformed him into a quasi-celebrity — on UF’s campus.
On a recent night, he joined other gamers in a lecture hall in Turlington, surrounded by 10 to 15 TVs, gaming consoles and players. Some of the players were in pajamas, ready to play until 2 in the morning.
But Juan wore a yellow polo shirt — he wouldn’t be there long. He had Friday night plans.
Really, he’s just your average, 21-year-old college guy: He has a trendy beard and mustache, a girlfriend he met at a party and job applications to send in before graduation in May.
But for a small niche, he’s Hungrybox, the professional player who rose to gamester fame using Pokémon’s Jigglypuff as his main character in Melee. He has sponsors, he has fans and he has haters.
Debiedma calls himself a “smasher.” He doesn’t play other video games, just “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” the game he gets paid to play. It’s a passion.
As he winds down his college career and enters the workforce, Debiedma said Hungrybox isn’t going anywhere.
This is what he hopes to have in the next few months: a degree in chemical engineering, a nice job in that field lined up and a good showing at Evo, The Evolution Championship series in Las Vegas in July. It’s one of the largest fighting-game tournaments in the world, and it’s where he placed second in one-on-one play last year.
A gold would be nice, but, at the very least, he wants to maintain his ranking as one of the top five Melee players in the world.
“Whenever I place below fourth, I get pretty pissed.”
Before he was Hungrybox, also known as Hbox, Debiedma was a just a little boy with a controller in his hand.
At about 3 years old, he played his first video game, “Sonic the Hedgehog.”
This, he said, is probably when it started. The details are fuzzy, but it didn’t matter back then. He wasn’t getting paid yet. He didn’t have sponsors, or his own streaming channel or a white jersey with his gaming name, “Hungrybox,” printed on the back.
Fast forward to 1999 when Nintendo released the first version of Super Smash Bros. The goal of the game is simple: You pick a famous Nintendo character and fight to the death with your closest friends. In 2001, the sequel, “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” was released.
You could choose Fox, a brown, well, fox, who happens to be an alien and master pilot — largely considered the “best” character in the game. Or, you could also choose Debiedma’s main character, Jigglypuff, a round, pink Pokémon best known for singing people to sleep. It’s hardly intimidating, but if you know what buttons to press, some real damage can be done.
“I really liked the whole risk-reward thing, so I stuck with her,” Debiedma said.
Around 2006, he started competing in tournaments with his friends, where “we would get completely destroyed.” During this time he came up with his gaming name. He wanted to go on a field trip, and he forged his mom’s signature.
“It looked like a Pac-Man with teeth,” he said, so he called it a hungry box.
Hungrybox would soon become a bit of a gaming legend. You can even find videos of his matches on YouTube.
He plays with a set facial expression: methodical, focused, eyes set on the screen. His arms don’t move much, only his fingers. In fact, the only time he moves at all is when he loses a life or takes a life off his opponent. Then, he might lean back or nod his head. When the game ends, he offers a handshake or a pat on the back, win or lose.
If he wins though, he breaks out of his trance. In a video of his semifinal win (he went on to win the whole thing) at the 2015 Paragon tournament in Orlando, Florida, he stood on a chair, raised his hands in victory and pounded his chest toward a cheering crowd.
But he worked up to that. In 2009, he placed third at the Genesis tournament in Antioch, California. In 2010, he got one of his biggest wins: first place at APEX, a tournament in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with 220 entrants in his division, Melee singles. That earned him $1,485.
Now, he’s at the level where he has sponsors. He started out on Team Curse, and in April 2014, the group merged with Team Liquid, an e-sports team that represents several companies.
Debiedma is hesitant to talk about sponsorship pay, but a listing in esportearnings.com gives an idea of what the pros get in prize money. According to the site, which warned prize information is missing from some tournaments, Hungrybox earned $23,965.14 from 59 tournaments. Breaking down his earnings by year, the site lists he’s already made at least $4,935.50 in 2015 alone.
As for sponsorship perks, Debiedma said he gets transportation covered for the farther tournaments, and he’s gotten equipment like an HTC phone and an Alienware computer in the past. At competitions, he dons his white Team Liquid jersey.
“It’s more of a lifestyle,” he said. “This is what you do. You train; you’re an athlete.”
In high school, that meant playing the game every day. As an engineering student taking 14 to 15 credits every semester, he said he plays once or twice a week, and it’s for fun.
When he does play, it’s sometimes Friday nights at UF. The Gator Gaming organization hosts a weekly “SmashFest” in Turlington Hall, Room L011, starting play at 7 p.m. and going until 2 in the morning. With TVs set up everywhere, anyone who wants to play can, and games on the projector can be broadcast live through the site Twitch.tv. Using the Amazon-owned platform, anyone around the world can watch the live stream of their games.
On a recent night, Diamond Overstreet, a computer engineering senior, supervised the night.
“There’s certain people that love to play games, and certain people that love to set it up,” he said.
Overstreet is one of the latter. As project manager for Gator Gaming, he likes to help “provide a gaming experience” free of charge and said it’s a good change of pace for his friend Hungrybox.
“He loves these events because they’re free, they’re relaxed,” Overstreet said. “He can get to know his community, get to know his players.”
The community already knows him pretty well, though.
But for Amanda Snyder, Debiedma’s girlfriend, the name Hungrybox wasn’t on her radar.
That changed at a Halloween party in 2012, when she was dressed as Princess Peach.
She said Debiedma waltzed up to her to tell her he was a nationally ranked Smash player, and she was dressed as one of the game’s characters.
Now having dated for almost two years, Snyder, also a UF senior, admits she’s “terrible, actually” at video games. But Debiedma has been giving her lessons lately.
Even if she has to compete with Smash sometimes, Snyder said she’s always been involved with the gaming part of his life. She’s finally started going to his tournaments, convincing him she won’t be a distraction.
“To me, this is like, such a massive part of his life, you know?” she said. “I thought it was crazy that no one he dated had ever paid attention to his tournaments.”
But so many others do. As of press time, Debiedma has nearly 30,000 followers on his Twitter, @LiquidHbox. When he does Reddit AMAs, he gets hundreds of comments and upvotes easily. Once, on a date with Snyder at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse at the Oaks Mall, the busboy refilling their water whispered, “Hi, Hungrybox,” then walked away. One time, someone at the Hub asked him to sign a wallet.
Yes, he has a strong cult following and natural gaming talent, but Debiedma insists, “My main goal isn’t to be a gamer forever. I want to be an engineer.” His plan is to keep finding a happy medium between work and play.
Hungrybox signs autographs at tournaments, and Juan spends a summer working on process variables and formulas with Henkel, the company that makes Dial soap.
Hungrybox gets a steady flood of views on his live stream gaming channel, twitch.tv/hungrybox, and Juan debates accepting a job offer at RockTenn, a major manufacturer of consumer packaging listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Hungrybox retweets the Jigglypuff illustrations fans send on Twitter, and Juan gets runner-up in UF’s Mr. Engineering contest.
He couldn’t help but laugh to himself when it came to the pageant’s final question: They asked him how he balances different passions in life.
[A version of this story ran on page 5 on 4/21/2015]
Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma plays against Mustafa “Ice” Akcakaya, from Germany, at Apex 2015. Debiedma placed fifth out of about 1,000 entrants.
Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma poses for a photo. Debiedma is one of the top five “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” players in the world, and the No. 1 ranked player in Florida.