Defense and Redemption

July 14 2017

The Defender

“It feels really good to be back in the venue where it all happened last year.”

July 17th, 2016. The day he finally broke through.

As Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma took Adam “Armada” Lindgren’s last stock at EVO 2016, he crumpled to the ground, overcome by emotion.

All he could do was scream to the heavens.

It was a release for Hungrybox, who had placed second at EVO in 2014 and 2015 in the years prior. This was THE tournament he had dreamed of winning since he began mashing buttons on a controller.

No longer had he fallen short of greatness. He had risen to the echelon of past EVO winners Armada and Joseph “Mang0” Marquez.

Sweet, sweet victory. And boy, did he savor every morsel of it.

Fast forward to this year. Hungrybox is near the peak of his game, having pulled off a string of impressive victories at Smash n’ Splash 3, DreamHack Austin, and Smash Rivalries. Momentum certainly is swinging on his side.

But defending his title will be an uphill battle. For one, William “Leffen” Hjelte will be in attendance this year after missing EVO 2016 due to visa issues. Leffen’s precise Fox play has proven more than capable of defeating Hungrybox’s Puff, but Juan knows that to be the best, he must beat the best. “My playstyle has shifted a good bit since last year, but the idea is the same. If you want to win this tournament, you have to play the best you ever have in your life.”

Each of Melee’s “gods” (top 5 players) will also present a different challenge for Hungrybox on his quest for a second straight crown. As it stands, Armada, Mang0, and Mew2King each have powerful motivations to give their all in Las Vegas: Revenge for Armada, History for Mang0, and Legacy for M2K.

That’s not even mentioning the growing breed of challengers that are hungry to take down Hungrybox. Fellow Team Liquid player ChuDat, Wizzrobe, SFat, Plup, and Lucky have all beaten Hbox in sets this year. There’s also the lineup of Fox mains yearning to knock out the world’s best Puff.

If Hungrybox is to hoist the EVO trophy once more, these are the men he will have to plow through to do it. The good news? Being the champ comes with a wealth of experience. “From EVO last year, the main thing I learned was that patience is key and that you cannot let yourself tilt under any circumstances,” Hbox reveals as he contemplates his potential all-Fox bracket, “Whoever cracks under pressure loses and that's usually the case.”

It was only last year at EVO that Hungrybox was sent to loser’s bracket by Plup, forcing him to mount one of his best runs ever to the final. He stormed through S2J, Mang0, and Plup to reach Armada. Despite lingering near the brink of losing during those two sets, he composed himself enough to find some clutch rests on Armada’s Fox.

For Hungrybox, those are the moments that give him hope regardless of stock count—and keep his opponents on their toes, even when they’re well ahead.

There’s also the mystique of EVO to consider. It’s not a normal tourney. No, this is a mega-gathering of players from a wide spectrum of fighting games. An event of this magnitude overwhelms the weak-minded, and favors the few players that manage to dial in. “My biggest obstacle would probably be stamina,” Juan admits, “Saturday is basically all of Top 256 and it's all Bo3 pretty much. I need to stay awake!”

Yet Hungrybox LIVES for tournaments like these. This fiercely competitive environment makes his uncanny composure his greatest weapon. “[I] just have fun,” he confesses about his in-game attitude, “Mentality and how you approach the game is just as important.” A man that prioritizes his mental game as much as Hungrybox almost certainly has a specific plan for winning each match—and the tournament at large.

Whether we’re ready for it or not, Act II of Hungrybox’s award-winning performance will arrive this Saturday. They say the desert is scattered with bones; will the bones that pile up in Vegas this weekend be those of Hungrybox, or his competitors? If Hbox has any say in it, and manages to stay awake, you can expect Clark County to be a wasteland of Fox skulls and Marth mandibles by the time Monday rolls around.

“That's probably gonna mean a shit ton of Monster.”

The Redeemer

"I like being the one with all the power. I don't like being on the receiving end."
NuckleDu, when asked about choosing R. Mika

It’s hard to imagine that the Capcop Pro Tour champion would need any sort of ‘redeeming’, but when you’re as talented and successful as Du “NuckleDu” Dang, a 49th placing at EVO 2016—the worst major placement of his SFV career—requires more than just a runback.

EVO wasn’t always NuckleDu’s demon. He placed an admirable 17th at EVO 2014, and even cracked top 8 at EVO 2015—which for most players is a crowning achievement. Yet these formerly strong finishes did little to ease the disappointment of the first EVO of Street Fighter V.

It did, however, have a surprising benefit. EVO 2016 became the catalyst that would reignite NuckleDu’s fire as a competitor and champion. By his own admission during that fateful tournament, “I'm not too confident. I haven't been practicing much. I've been really relaxing with my dogs. I'm just gonna do my best and hope for the best."

Instead of being crushed by the weight of defeat, NuckleDu was instead humbled. He understood that things had to change.

In the 23 events NuckleDu entered following EVO 2016, he made top 8 in 19 events and secured 11 wins. That level of consistency is something that hasn’t been matched by anyone and is likely to remain in the history books. One of those wins happened to be the Capcom Pro Tour and the biggest prize in FGC—$230,000 and the title of best in the world. Du also became the first American to ever claim the honor.

So, what changed after EVO? “I was just tired of losing,” NuckleDu explained after his Capcom Cup win, “Last year, I didn't practice as hard. I didn't want it as hard and that's why I didn't get the results I wanted.”

For NuckleDu, his trials in the first half of 2016 came down to his own lack of effort. The reactions from fans were, at times, harsh. Yet many more were fair. NuckleDu had no one else to blame for defeat the same way he had no one more to credit for victory.

Still, it is important to place his form in the context of SFV’s short history to better understand the player.

2016 was Street Fighter V’s inaugural year and the shift between Ultra Street Fighter 4 and Street Fighter V was steep. While the games share a familiar title, each major release brings about massive system changes and even though the core gameplay remains largely the same, the devil is in the details. It can take pro players time to find their footing within the new systems and Nuckledu had a slow start but an absolutely explosive finish.

Another major factor is that NuckleDu wasn’t yet able to implement the playstyle that brought him success later in the year. His terrifying ability to counter pick match-ups and play styles by selecting his hyper aggressive Rainbow Mika or space control Guile proved to be a nightmare many competitors couldn’t escape. Guile didn’t release until late April as a DLC character, which left little time for NuckleDu to adapt to the new version of his favorite character. He even admitted to EsportsObserver that he “sucked” at Guile during EVO 2016. This forced NuckleDu into playing mostly Nash, a hit and run style character whom he dropped shortly after EVO concluded. Once he found his stride on Guile, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the year.

“Now that I'm on top, I have to work twice as hard as I did last year,” NuckleDu disclosed in his ELEAGUE profile, “I actually study the past champions and I try to see where they start falling off. And it's hard. I think it's them being complacent.”

NuckleDu’s resurrection after EVO 2016 showed that he would not be complacent in losing. He has experienced his fair share of disappointment this year, but none of those setbacks have resulted in a permanent dip in form. For NuckleDu, each loss is a reminder that there is more work to be done, and that he can get better.

Despite reigning as the game’s de facto champion, there remains one tournament that eludes him: EVO. The spectacle in Las Vegas is special; its prestige and history is unrivaled in the FGC. Yet NuckleDu’s name is already in lights as the game’s leading man.

“When I won [Capcom Pro Tour], it just played like a movie,” Du explained. “Flashbacks, over and over. All the pain and stress that I went through, it finally hit me that oh my god, this was worth it, this is what you deserve.”

For NuckleDu, a win at EVO sets himself up for something far greater. The tournament that has frustrated him the most is a mark that weighs upon his legacy. At just 21 years of age, he has the potential to one day become the greatest of all time.

“If I appreciate everything more, then I would do a lot better. I'm really lucky to be able to do what I do."

Sometimes, the first step to appreciating what you have is to lose.

For champions like NuckleDu, the next step is then to win.

Text: // Jeff Anderson and Brandon Bernica