Nintendo didn’t invite the top player of its longest-running esports title, Super Smash Bros. Melee, to its biggest (and likely only) tournament of the year. Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma isn’t exactly salty that he won’t be playing at the E3 Invitational next month; he’s more disbelieving. “It’s not as outlandish as flat earth,” said Debiedma over the phone yesterday. “But I was surprised, to say the least.”
After over a decade of competing at the 2001 platform fighter, Debiedma’s relationship with Nintendo has taken on some sour undertones. A company far removed from Smash’s competitive scenes, Nintendo’s brushing off Debiedma, an icon for their blockbuster title, speaks to their opaque and sometimes frustrating philosophy toward esports.
Nintendo hosted its last Smash Invitational in 2014 when Debiedma was on the top of the Smash universe. For years, Debiedma had stolen winning spots at big national tournaments, earning himself a reputation as a so-called “Smash god.” When Nintendo debuted Smash 4 at E3 that summer, the Smash celebrity was invited to showcase the game. Strutting to the stage in a blue silk robe, Debiedma accepted countless high fives, selfies and hugs from ravenous fans before facing off against the then-less popular Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios. Victory happened in an indecipherable blur: in “Sudden Death” overtime, Barrios’ character seems to grab Debiedma’s—faster than an average player can see—and the underdog won.
Though Barrios had knocked him off his throne, Debiedma was still high off the spotlight’s glow—to the point where he issued a challenge to Nintendo of America CEO Reggie Fils-Aimé live on stage: winning a one-on-one “For Glory” match. Fils-Aimé declined, adding it might be in the cards later on. The next year, it happened. Debiedma walked up to Fils-Aimé fronting like they’d fight before accepting a hug from the suit-wearing executive.
“If I win, I’m prepared to offer you a job,” the executive told the Melee champ. Debiedma responded, “I’m an engineer, boy, I don’t need it.” The two went to Final Destination, Smash’s most serious stage. Reggie lost a stock within three seconds. Later, he’d admit to Kotaku that he hadn’t even practiced.
“Reggie, for being the president of Nintendo, you suck at Smash Bros.,” said Debiedma.
“I spend 16 hours a day running a company. You spend 16 hours a day playing Smash,” sniped Fils-Aimé.
Nintendo will host its next invitational tournament, this time for Smash 5, at E3 in Los Angeles next month. The company typically only holds major tournaments for the debut of new games; Smash 5 is coming out later this year. Yesterday, Nintendo announced the eight invited competitors for the E3 invitational in June. Four come from 2001’s Super Smash Bros Melee., which still regularly draws in thousands-strong crowds at tournaments, and four come from Smash 4. Barrios will return. And this time, from Melee, we’ll see Joseph “Mang0” Marquez, Justin “Plup” McGrath, top player Adam “Armada” Lindgren and, curiously, Joey “Lucky” Aldama, who is ranked 17th, 16 slots lower than Debiedma’s number one spot.
Debiedma’s name—top in his game—is conspicuously absent from the roster. He can only guess why. In our interview, Debiedma wondered out loud why Aldama would get chosen, of all people. “Maybe they wanted local SoCal [southern California] talent,” he mused, adding that Marquez is also local to the area. “It’s an interesting pick for me.”
Debiedma wonders whether his competitive attitude toward a decidedly family-friendly company came back to bite him. “They’re a corporation and have PR. There’s a chance it was that. Or maybe it’s simple: more new faces,” he said.
Getting an invitation from Nintendo to compete isn’t just about money or trying out the hype new Smash game. It’s about receiving rare validation as a professional gamer from a company that’s very hands-off about its game’s esports scenes. It’s about living off the relevance the tournament awards you. “When you’re given that golden ticket by Nintendo, it’s a blessing,” Debiedma said. “Your name’s gonna be everywhere really soon. If you win like ZeRo did, as you can see, glory seems to follow.” (Thankfully, Debiedma pointed out on Twitter, all of the players Nintendo reached out to are sponsored professionals and not YouTube influencers and the like.)
Unlike other game companies, Nintendo doesn’t sponsor pros, host a tournament circuit or, in general, bolster its esports community much—outside of the rare invitational. That can make it hard for pros burnt-out from constant tournament travel to make a living and, a few years ago, led some to consider unionizing. Last year, Debiedma called out Nintendo for not patronizing Super Smash Bros. Melee’s esports scene:
“A certain company that acknowledges us but refuses to push us, I hope you’re listening right now, because I want you to hear this,” Debiedma announced at a Wisconsin tournament. “I want you to hear the amount of people who support this league, the amount of people who want this to be a lifestyle for people. This is not just a video game, this is a lifestyle.” In response, Fils-Aimé told Kotaku, “I love passionate Smash fans. . . We love Hungrybox. We had him in our tournaments. There is a passion in the Smash Bros.community which is fantastic. When he talks about lack of support, I’m not quite sure what he’s alluding to.”
Since facing off against Fils-Aimé in 2015, Debiedma’s wondered whether he should have taken the job at Nintendo in exchange for a loss—or whether there was even a job to be taken. “Not a single day has passed where I’m like, What if he meant that? Could I really be working at Nintendo right now? I thought it was friendly trash talk but you get one shot to do those things.” One of Debiedma’s dreams, he says, is to be some sanctioned figure at Nintendo— someone they can use as a competitive consultant. Smash, to him, “is magical. It has its own narrative and personality and history and a miraculous story. . . Any time you’re chosen by Willy Wonka is a chance to push that forward.”
If Nintendo reached out to Debiedma and invited him after all that, he says, “Not for a second would I be like ‘Why now?’ I’ll be like, ‘Where’s the ticket? I’ll pack my bag and be right there.’” Regardless, he’s going to be playing Smash 5 competitively—depending “how good or bad they make Jigglypuff.” He continued, “Melee will still be around.”
“They’re running a billion-dollar empire. I’m just Hungrybox. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Compete is Deadspin and Kotaku’s joint site dedicated to competitive gaming.