Here's looking at you, kid: The saga of Hungrybox

Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma, pro Super Smash Bros. Melee player, streams his gameplay to viewers online. Cassi Alexandra for ESPN

Cheers. Thundersticks. The clicks of camera lenses in rapid succession. White strobe lights flash around the crowd. It's July 2016 inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Juan "Hungrybox" DeBiedma crashes to his knees, hits the stage twice with his fists and lets out a yell. What follows are tears of joy. A roar of victory.

On this hot summer day in Las Vegas, DeBiedma completed a four-year mission: win the Evolution Championship Series, the biggest fighting game event of the year. As patrons gambled across the casino floor, DeBiedma hit the jackpot.

"What the f---?" he mouthed in disbelief to Luis "Crunch" Rosias, his longtime best friend and coach, who stood offstage. The tears that ran down his face weren't from excitement, but relief. DeBiedma wore his emotion on his sleeve, and his big moment in Vegas was a catharsis.

His opponent, Adam "Armada" Lindgren, sat slouched in his banquet chair, covering his mouth to hide his face of disappointment. Throughout 2015 and 2016, Lindgren and DeBiedma had been racing for the top spot in competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee. And in this moment -- though it wasn't the first time -- DeBiedma managed to defeat Lindgren on the grandest stage of them all.

"It's the single greatest accomplishment of my life," said DeBiedma, 25. "I can safely say that."

Since that night in July, DeBiedma's sprint has turned into a marathon, not just for the illustrious Evo title, but for the top spot year-over-year in one of the longest-standing titles in esports. And unlike Lindgren -- forever known for his stoicism -- who has stood his ground, DeBiedma has fought with not only opponents, but internet trolls and even himself.

On Aug. 5, the two will likely meet again at Evo on the same stage in the same event center. But this time, it comes with more of a purpose: for DeBiedma to not only prove that he can do it again, but that he can do it the Hungrybox way.

For months prior to that fateful night in July, DeBiedma had been chasing Lindgren. The two met before Evo, in DeBiedma's hometown, Orlando, then in Vegas and again in Dearborn, Michigan. Each time, DeBiedma couldn't pull it off. Not on home soil and not when the odds were stacked in his favor.

"Armada and I have this strange thing. It's very rarely back-and-forth," DeBiedma explained. "It's more like one player spanks the other for an entire half a year before the system changes."

But then came Jönköping in November 2015.

Lindgren is the only Melee "god" -- there are five total including DeBiedma -- from Europe. Often considered a region that lacks tournament organizer support, American and Japanese players would only visit Europe a couple of times a year. Then came DreamHack, a longtime esports tournament organizer whose major events take place in Sweden, Lindgren's home country.

It's almost fitting that after months of defeat, including the one in Orlando, that DeBiedma's moment would come in Jönköping on Armada's hometurf.

An up-air, a back-air. A fist bump. Tears. Game.

With Rosias by his side and manager Brittany Lattanzio rushing to side stage, DeBiedma had done it: he beat Lindgren. But the moment that most people remember in Jönköping was not the victory, no matter how sweet.

"I've wanted this for so long," DeBiedma would say later in a post-game interview. "My dad just passed away. It was my biological dad. I know this is personal stuff, but he told me, 'You'll never be the best. You'll be good, but you'll never be the best.' So I hope he sees me now ..."

A pause, and in between tears: "It's fine. All is forgiven. It's a lot of closure for me."

It's July 2008. DeBiedma, then 15, volunteered to host a number of competitive Smash players in his parents' home for Fast 1, an Orlando-based Super Smash Bros. tournament. At the time, his father complained that the players were drinking all the orange juice in the house.

"He made me feel like crap for trying to help the community, offering to house people," DeBiedma said.

Later on, his father would drop him off at the Central Florida YMCA, where Fast 1 was held. And that was the last time DeBiedma would ever see him.

His mother, meanwhile, chipped in where she could, waking up early to set up cups of cereal for all 12 people staying in the house. She would later attend the final day of Fast 1 to watch DeBiedma compete for the first time.

"Throughout it all, I was still able to house people," DeBiedma said. "I remember my mom would always willingly pick people up from the airport and drop them off. It's a very good example of how supportive she's been through all of these crazy moments in my life due to Smash."

DeBiedma described his late father as an opportunist, who always searched for the next get-rich-quick scheme, but often at the expense of leaving his family and losing their savings. At one point, DeBiedma said, his father lost his family over half a million dollars.

Seven years later, in November 2015, DeBiedma sat at his work desk in Jacksonville, Florida, when his phone rang. "It was a number I didn't recognize, a 14-digit number, but because I remember how my mom used to call my grandma all the time, I recognized that number was Argentinian," he explained.

On the other line, a government official spoke quickly in Spanish.

"Su padre ha fallecido. Él sufrió un infarto."

While in Argentina, the official explained, DeBiedma's father died from a heart attack.

"I was like holy s---," DeBiedma said.

He texted his brother, who had also received a similar call, and then called his mother before approaching his boss.

"At that point, it hadn't really set in. I remember when I said the words out of mouth -- even though the guy had been a piece of s--- to my family and all of that, there were still good times. When you realize someone is gone, you think of the good times."

After his win in Jönköping, DeBiedma and Lindgren would meet again and again, often in the grand finals. From San Jose, California, to Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles, the two traded blows and conceived one of the best rivalries in all of esports.

And then there was Vegas.

Since its inception in 2002, the Evolution Championship Series has been the largest spectacle in fighting games. No matter the game, no matter the prize, the best from around the world -- the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea and others -- travel in droves to compete, with tens of thousands packing convention center halls, and then sports-sized arenas.

For Melee, despite its mixed history with the event, it is -- and as long as it continues to feature the game -- the biggest prize for Smash players. In 2013, DeBiedma took third. In 2014 and 2015, second. Each time he got closer, the competition got harder. And then, it happened.

"It's almost the end of an era," DeBiedma said following his Evo 2016 victory. "It took me 10 years to get this. Ten years, four Evos. I kept giving away free Evos. I was playing Armada and it was about to happen again, and I was like, 'Just please, this one time.' I'll never do this again probably, so I'll enjoy my one Evo. I'm going to put this [up] and when I'm an old man, have it next to me when I die. This is the most valuable object I will ever see in my life, and I'm very happy to have it."

"This is the biggest risk I've ever taken in my entire life," DeBiedma said while choking up in front of hundreds of viewers on a Twitch stream.

In November, four months after his big win in Vegas, DeBiedma quit his full-time job at Westrock, a Georgia-based packaging company. He'd graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in chemical engineering the year prior and relocated to the southeast -- from Jacksonville to Buford, Georgia, and lastly to Demopolis, Alabama -- in roles that were flexible enough so that he could still pursue his pro gaming career.

But then it wasn't. One day, his bosses told him he had to choose only one of two events to attend: The Big House 6 in Dearborn, Michigan, or another Smash Summit event in Los Angeles, an invitation-only for the top players in the game. Broken, DeBiedma told them that day that he couldn't choose and that, at that point, he would effectively leave.

He submitted his two weeks' notice within days and his career as an engineer at Westrock came to an end.

"The two I'd speak to the most [at that time] were my mom and Luis," DeBiedma said. "The big question was -- is it worth it? It was a well-paying job as an engineer. Do you really want to quit that after how hard it had been going day-by-day from interviews looking for a job, to career fairs? It was definitely the most annoying part of college, trying to figure out what the hell to do with the rest of your life after you get your degree."

While DeBiedma has never disclosed his salary from prize earnings or his contract with Team Liquid -- one of the wealthiest and most successful organizations in esports -- Super Smash Bros. players are generally not paid very well. But that didn't matter for DeBiedma.

"Every day is a little adventure now," DeBiedma told theScore esports in November 2016, shortly after he announced he left Westrock. "I'm reminding myself that I'm 23 years old. I think it was a good call overall. It's allowing me to take advantage of things that I normally I wouldn't have. In exchange for what? Maybe I'd have more money each year. I'm quickly learning that I can live off what Smash gives me, that I don't need a lot of things in my life."

In the time since he left his full-time job, DeBiedma achieved top status, literally, in the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene. He won a total of 38 tournaments over the span of a year and a half. In January, Melee It On Me, the de facto rating body for Melee, named DeBiedma as its top player for the first time in his career, with Lindgren coming in second.

But in August 2017, DeBiedma and his longtime girlfriend, Amanda, split. It took only hours after their breakup for threads to pop up on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, speculating about their personal life. It was an invasion of privacy that DeBiedma said he'd learned from and has since worked to keep his personal life more private.

In the months following, DeBiedma said it was one of his lowest points, filled with excessive drinking and strained relationships with family and friends. He said his mom, his biggest supporter, often saw him drunk throughout this period, something that became "really hard for her."

"The only thing keeping me happy was Melee," DeBiedma said. "It wasn't even to be the best anymore. I just kind of told Liquid to send me to as many events as possible, as many as possible, please. They sent me eight weekends in a row, from GTX to what I can't even name anymore. GTX, Apollo, DreamHack Denver, Smash Summit, Too Hot to Handle, Big House 7. All of those events, I won them in a row, in easily the highlight of my career. I got the No. 1 rank without even trying to do so."

"I simply went and played each match as a way of [passing] the seconds in the day -- if that makes sense -- to give me something to do, to keep me away from thinking about something else. Maybe it's because I no longer had a personal life or a professional job. The things I was working toward were no longer a part of my life anymore. What's left? Melee."

In his search for himself, DeBiedma worked to establish himself outside of the game and to find a new balance of happiness and his esports career.

In March 2018, DeBiedma returned to work, taking a position at an information technology company in Florida. Since returning to the workforce, DeBiedma has won a number of tournaments, including Community Effort Orlando in Daytona Beach, Florida in June and Low Tier City 6 in Dallas, Texas in July. The most recent victory, at Low Tier City, included a close set win over Lindgren.

"I went back to work, because I started doing the full-time esports thing," DeBiedma said. "I felt more and more detachment from what I loved and that scared the s--- out of me. Every day I'd sit in that chair and try to entertain people, try to be funny for an audience and try to win a tournament. Every day I did it, I felt further and further away from thinking, 'I'm doing what I love' to 'I was doing what I love.' That's scary. I wanted to feel grounded again.

"Playing Smash only and streaming, I did not feel fulfilled. Maybe if I was a different player or if I was someone was less polarizing, maybe it might be different. I know how people see me a lot of time, I know what people say and write about me. Having to read that over and over every single day as trying to be this full-time gamer and build my brand, it got me. It started to mess with my head a lot. I was very close to getting therapy. I chose not to, probably because I got the job, but if I continued doing [esports] full time, I was very close to getting therapy for it. I hated seeing people having a warped perception of me, misunderstanding of me."

It's 1:30 a.m. on June 18, 2017. As the rest of Hunters Creek, Florida slept, a crowd of people gathered together outside a house in an otherwise quiet and quaint neighborhood. They were waiting on DeBiedma.

Less than two hours earlier, DeBiedma added yet another Community Effort Orlando belt to his collection -- at this point, his fifth title. But the victory, which took place shortly after midnight, isn't even the most important part of the day for DeBiedma. In three days, it would be his 24th birthday, accompanied by what became annual tradition: trophy first, birthday second.

As the group entered the house with custard-colored walls, they're greeted by DeBiedma's mother and biggest fan, Lucia Violante, who has hosted this annual late-night party over the past few years. The walls are lined with pictures of DeBiedma, his mother and his two older brothers. The youngest of the pack, DeBiedma is featured with long hair and not a single inch of stubble, different from the 24-year-old standing in the kitchen today.

The younger version of DeBiedma isn't unfamiliar for the tens of thousands who on at least a monthly basis watch him compete against the best Super Smash Bros. Melee players in the world. Most athletes' childhoods are often forgotten, but for DeBiedma, it's as if he can't escape it. And although over a decade since he entered his first competition, for some, DeBiedma is still the same.

"It's so complicated now, I feel," DeBiedma said. "You get a kid who's 15 years old -- he's a s---lord who plays a character everyone hates. He's overly cocky and talks too much. People kind of carry that angst with him, then that kid continues to be a top five player in the world and it moves on and on. The negative parts of personality -- the pop-offs, they're not exaggerated, maybe as a person I am overly cathartic, but that's how I am -- it's seen by people and it tips them off the wrong way. Maybe certain things I said, maybe certain ways I act, which mind you the entire time, I had zero idea that I was ticking people off the wrong way. I was either completely oblivious or ignorant to it, one of those two, but I definitely was."

But Lucia's home is where it all started. Melee, which was released in December 2001 in the United States, became a staple of the household. DeBiedma and Rosias, who met in fifth grade in Orlando, would grind the game for hours -- and to this day, DeBiedma credits Rosias for training him to play against Fox, the consensus best character in the game. From green rooms in Daytona Beach to those in Las Vegas and Jönköping, Rosias is as much a part of DeBiedma's winning mentality as anything.

"I need one phrase to keep in my mind, to replay in my mind and that's what happens," DeBiedma said. "I tell [Luis] sometimes, even if that's all you got, just give me something to think about.' You can't let your mind wander and drift into nothingness, you have to stay focused and keep grounded. Think about something that reminds you of what your goal is, so I think it's important to repeat that in your head."

From pushback due to his character choice, Jigglypuff -- one that few have mastered on a competitive level, and that some top players deem as "annoying" or "broken" -- to Facebook posts from those he doesn't even know speculating about his personal life, the internet has rubbed DeBiedma the wrong way.

"If it wasn't so necessary for my career, to build my brand, to stay in touch with my fans and the world, I would take a one-year break from Twitter and Facebook," DeBiedma said. "I desperately need it. I think it's caused a lot of mental damage that I didn't need. I was not prepared in any way to handle it. It's my own fault. It fazes me way less now, at least negative parts of it, and I focus solely now for the brand, for the positive stuff. It's hard to sometimes. It really shows you the depths of some people who get satisfaction of making people want to die. It's a sick place."

DeBiedma acknowledged that some of the hate in the past was warranted, that his behavior, at times, did rub people the wrong way. But as he's matured, and as he's learned from people like Rosias, he wishes he could do it over.

"It's weird having to adapt to spotlight at a young age," he said. "It's weird craving attention, getting it and not knowing what to do with it. I guess it's a complex I've always had, that I wanted attention, that I wanted to be someone great, something huge, someone memorable to go down in history. The biggest thing that woke me up is realizing that I'm no more important than anyone next to me."

He needed a reality check. DeBiedma did not consider himself an A-list celebrity, after all.

"Sure, I'm a pro gamer, but it really doesn't mean that much when it's all said and done," he said.

His new goal? To make as many people as happy as possible.

"Whenever someone thanks me for my accomplishments or what I did for them, or whenever someone says they hate me or dislikes me for what I do, I now react to both in the same way," he said. "That's a person with a thought and they have a reason to think that, and I can't change that about them. That's all there is to it."

In less than a day, the grind will continue. DeBiedma will fly from Orlando to Las Vegas and he'll most likely grind through two days of a tournament to advance to the Mandalay Bay Events Center grand stage. And waiting for him? Lindgren.

But the stakes have changed, although the race for No. 1 in the Melee rankings still exist. Now DeBiedma must prove that -- with a new job, a different routine and a different lifestyle -- he can replicate the greatest moment in his life. It's a tall task and with over 1,350 Melee entrants filing into the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on Friday, rising to the top once more won't be easy.