It's day two at DreamHack Austin, the giant esports festival series' debut in North America. The fourth floor ballroom is filled with the noise of fighting games, Hearthstone and StarCraft players. One fighting game player, Super Smash Bros. Melee legend Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma, is sitting in the crowd with his girlfriend by his side as they watch his future in-game prey play on stage.
For the past sixth months Hungrybox has been on top of the Melee scene. At DreamHack Winter in late November he beat the best player in the world, fellow Smash aficionado Adam "Armada" Lindgren. Earlier in 2015, Hungrybox cemented himself as the second best in the game, but now he had beaten the best. His climb to the number one spot had only just begun.
Here in Austin, Hungrybox says he's going to win it all. Armada isn't in attendance, and the only major competitor he has to beat to take home the gold is rival Joseph "Mango" Marquez. No easy task, but it's something he's done more than once this year at events like PAX Arena and Battle of the Five Gods.
"I [expect to win DreamHack Austin]," Hungrybox tells me with confidence. "As long as I'm playing well, which I wasn't earlier, but I'm gonna warm up [for later] and do what I can."
Hungrybox's secret to winning events is his best friend, fellow Florida Melee player Luis "Cpt. Crunch" Rosias. Since placing fifth at Community Effort Orlando (CEO), Hungrybox has pulled in Cpt. Crunch to serve as his coach, analyst and sports psychologist. With Cpt. Crunch by his side in Sweden, Hungrybox bested Armada at the aforementioned DreamHack Winter, and has continued to use his best friend's talents to help improve his game.
"Luis stepped in [after CEO] and was like, 'let's analyze your game' and we tried to go with the edge-camping tactic, which worked for a few tournaments and I actually beat Mango with it," Hungrybox says. "But that was still solvable, and Armada kept solving it. So for DreamHack [Winter], we really stepped up to the plate and we basically said, 'what do we need to do to beat Armada?' We optimized our play and that was DreamHack Winter. Ever since then, I've sort of been following that wave, in case you haven't noticed."
That wave has led him here, where will face top competitors like Mango, Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, Jeffrey "Axe" Williamson, Zac "SFAT" Cordoni, Weston "Westballz" Dennis, and more, each which are top fifteen players in the game over the past year. But despite some top names at the event, Hungrybox has odd predictions for who will place in the top eight by the end of Sunday.
"Top eight is gonna be..." He pauses, then mentions fellow Florida player Justin "Plup" McGrath. I tell him that Plup isn't attending this event, and he asks me if I'm sure. I reassure him that Plup isn't in attendance. His reaction, typical of his character, is: "Holy ****."
"I know he's not one of the popular picks, but Duck has clearly demonstrated that he might be the best Samus right now. I played him recently and I was just so impressed. I've never played a Samus like that."
He thinks for a moment, as I list off the top players in attendance off the top of my head. And then, he speaks: "[In that case, it's] me, Mango, Mew2King, SFAT, Nintendude, Wizzrobe, Wobbles, and seventh is gonna be a sleeper hit, The Moon."
The last player on his list, Ryan "The Moon" Coker-Welch, comes as a shock to me. While The Moon has always been a top player in the game, he's been inconsistent. But today, The Moon played with noticeable confidence. Hungrybox could be right - The Moon could take seventh place.
One person he doesn't mention is Samus player James "Duck" Ma, who came up later in our interview. I asked Hungrybox who he thinks is the next "demigod," which to the Smash community means a player who isn't one of the original "Five Gods" (Hungrybox, Mew2King, Mango, Armada, and PPMD), that can take games off of the top five players. He answers, to my surprise, "Duck."
"I think Duck [will break through this year], to be honest," Hungrybox says. "I know he's not one of the popular picks, but Duck has clearly demonstrated that he might be the best Samus right now. I played him recently and I was just so impressed. I've never played a Samus like that."
For his part, since late 2015, Duck has climbed the rankings. He took ninth at the Big House 5, thirteenth at Genesis 3 and Pound 2016, and most recently ninth at Smash Summit 2. With the absence of Plup's Samus, as he focuses on Sheik, Duck has become a top staple for the character.
"I used to destroy him, but he's been going even with me and it's just crazy," Hungrybox continues. "Duck, once again beating Leffen [at EGLX], and you'd think Leffen did work on the Samus matchup, and I'm sure he did, but he needs to catch up. Duck's also working the Fox matchup too."
Last weekend at the Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo (EGLX) in Toronto, Ontario was Leffen's first showing in North America in 2016, losing to Duck and taking seventh place in the process.
The last time he was in the United States in September 2015, Leffen won HTC Throwdown over Hungrybox in California. But upon trying to attend Big House 5 a month later, he was denied entry to the United States for not having a proper athletic visa. Two weeks ago, Leffen's team Team SoloMid and its sponsor Red Bull teamed up for a social marketing campaign called "#FreeLeffen."
Last week, Team SoloMid announced that he had received a short-term P-1A athletic visa, which will allow him to compete in CEO and EVO, two of fighting game's' biggest tournaments of the year, this summer.
"Leffen has displayed, especially last year, that he has potential to be [in the top four,]" Hungrybox says. "If not THE best, even, if he's playing on point. It'll be really tough to come back from [visa issues]. It's not like you just retain all that skill, and come back like nothing happened. Being away from not just the States, but the top talent that long, you need to constantly play them over and over again to refine your style and make sure you're on point."