Esports: Inside Noah Johnson’s rapid ascension in the Madden Championship Series

Noah Johnson is preparing for a future in economics, in which he’ll attempt to make a living via financial predictions.

It is ironic, then, that no one in the competitive Madden sphere saw him coming.

Johnson rose from irrelevance to prominence overnight, qualifying for the Madden NFL 20 Challenge and winning the whole thing in 2020 at just 17 years old. Johnson toppled two elite players — Wesley Gittens and Dwayne “Cleff The God” Wood — on his way to his first belt, a triumph that stunned the Madden world.

“We thought it was a fluke,” Wood told me. “We’re like, ‘Man, it’s just a one-hit wonder. He’ll never be back to this point.’ Because nobody knew who he was.”

They soon learned. So did the collegiate esports community; in 2021, the player known as NoahUpNxt took home a national title as a representative of West Virginia University.

No one disputes Johnson’s legitimacy anymore. The only question that remains is: How much higher he can climb as an esports star?

‘They thought it was a scam’

Johnson’s gaming career is rooted in his relationship with his father, Rob, who played Madden with his son and against online opponents when Johnson was just a kid. It didn’t take long for Johnson to graduate from student to master, and his dad would happily rely on his son’s growing skill to take down opponents in late-night showdowns.

“He would call me down in the middle of the night because he’d be playing at 2, 3 in the morning, because everyone else is asleep in the house and he’s playing,” Johnson recalled. “He’d come down and be like, ‘I’m losing to this guy, you gotta come help me beat him!’ So he’d wake me up in the middle of the night when I’m in fifth, sixth grade, and I’d be like, ‘Dad, I got school at 7 in the morning, I gotta wake up!’

“He’d wake me up, I’d beat (the online opponent), and then he’s like, ‘All right — don’t tell your mom.’ “

The bond shared between father and son birthed a passion for competition both in the virtual and real worlds. Johnson played multiple sports growing up as one of three siblings in Ellicott City, Maryland, and he spent his younger years chasing a dream of becoming a professional baseball player. On the diamond, he learned just how badly he wanted to win.

That same competitive fire can be seen in every Madden game Johnson plays. Many players talk to some degree during their Madden games, but few are as boisterous as Johnson was in his earlier years of esports. Johnson established his presence on the Madden scene by both winning and shouting at the television screen, using catchphrases like, “Go get seven,” and, “One stop,” in key moments. His youth was impossible to hide, thanks to his floppy, blond hair and boyish face, but according to Rob, his son was well-prepared for the moment.

“We went to an underground tournament in Pennsylvania,” the elder Johnson told me. “Noah’s 13, a chubby little kid, and he’s playing against 20-, 25-year-old guys, and he would just start talking trash. I knew at that point, there’s something about him. He’s so determined.

… “His voice hadn’t even really changed yet. … (but) here’s this little kid, talking trash!”

Since then, he’s grown up a bit. He is a college student now, after all.

“I don’t scream too much (anymore),” Johnson said with a smile. “I go through the YouTube comments, and it’s like, ‘Why is this guy always screaming?’ I still like to scream a little bit, but younger Noah liked to scream a lot.

“I like doing it too because it gets in a lot of people’s heads. If the guy next to you is just yelling the whole time, you’re like, ‘Why is this guy yelling?’ Then you’re not focused on the game, you’re focused on me, so I feel like that’s another advantage I can have on you. It’s kind of like a mental thing, get the other person out of their game.”

Johnson spent his formative years just minutes outside the city limits of Baltimore, but don’t presume he’s a Ravens fan. Johnson is a diehard backer of all things Philadelphia, thanks to his neighbors, who handed down team gear to Johnson and guided him on his path to becoming a fanatic. The support remains visible in Johnson’s attire: He wore an Eagles jersey for his maiden title belt victory and sported an Eagles hoodie during his interview with me in October.

His favorite Eagles memory wasn’t their first Super Bowl triumph at the end of the 2017 season, but their shocking 2010 victory over the Giants in East Rutherford, New Jersey, a game forever known as the Miracle at the New Meadowlands, in which DeSean Jackson — one of Johnson’s all-time favorites — returned a punt for a walk-off touchdown.

This is where Johnson’s preferences differ from those of his father, whom Johnson says is more of a fan of players — Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, specifically — than teams. It’s not the only topic on which they didn’t see eye to eye, at least not initially.

When Johnson began playing Madden competitively, Rob and Shelley, Johnson’s mother, were unaware of the potential it carried. And when Johnson qualified for his first live event, the Madden 20 Challenge, they didn’t take the opportunity seriously, either.

After all, what company flies out teenagers to play video games for money?

“They thought it was a scam,” Johnson said of his parents. “They were like, ‘Man, no company is doing that!’ I’m like, ‘EA is one of the biggest gaming companies in the world. It’s not a scam, I promise you!’

“Me and my dad went because I wasn’t 18 and so you go with a guardian. It obviously wasn’t a scam and they saw, ‘OK, you can make some money playing these games? All right, that’s pretty cool. Yeah, you can keep on pursuing it.’ “

That’s exactly what Johnson did, taking home a coveted Madden title belt by defeating the established veteran Wood in the Madden 20 Challenge final. The triumph was a stunning result that not only netted Johnson $35,000, but also launched his competitive Madden career to heights even he likely didn’t imagine were possible just a few years earlier.

“It all turned out to be legit,” Rob Johnson said. “I thought we’d be flying on some strange airline that didn’t exist, because how is a 16-year-old kid going to go there and do this? But it all worked out. It’s been incredible for him.”

‘It’s been kind of surreal’

Anyone doubting the legitimacy of esports must look no further than Johnson’s presence at WVU for proof that esports are here to stay.

In 2021, Johnson signed as the first esports student-athlete in the school’s history. Since, he has stepped into and fulfilled his role as the face of the esports future at WVU, adding a LevelNext collegiate national title to his expanding trophy case in his first year as a Mountaineer. It’s not quite the same as a true freshman winning the Heisman Trophy, but he’s close enough to be recognized by the university alongside some of the greats in WVU athletic history.

“They were actually honoring (famed men’s basketball coach) Bob Huggins and some other West Virginia legends like (former football star) Tavon Austin — who is the G.O.A.T. of college football, by the way,” Johnson said. … “But yeah, they’re honoring those guys and then there’s me. So it’s like, I don’t know if I belong with you guys, but it’s super dope to just be part of that.”

Johnson’s highlight reel is pretty good, too. He won his second Madden title belt — this time, in the Madden 22 Ultimate Thanksgiving tournament — as a freshman at WVU, and he faced off with top-ranked Madden competitor Henry Leverette in the Ultimate Kickoff final in Madden 23, widely regarded as one of the best showdowns in live event finals history.

For a moment, though, Johnson wasn’t sure Morgantown was where he wanted to spend his college years. He initially believed he’d follow the path of a regular college student. But then, Johnson said, the director of esports at the university, Josh Steger, reached out via social media with interest in Johnson as an esports student-athlete, and Johnson decided to explore the opportunity.

“At first, I was kind of hesitant. I was doing my own thing and everything was going good for me,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know where West Virginia (University) is at.’ “

He quickly learned, falling in love with Morgantown and the prospect of going to college on a scholarship to continue playing video games competitively. There is every indication that WVU is happy to have him, too; his image is plastered on the front of the school’s esports page, and he is touted as a top-15 professional Madden player, complete with a photo of Johnson on the field at Milan Puskar Stadium.

“Being here for a year and a half so far, it’s been awesome,” Johnson said. “It’s been kind of surreal. I always imagined I’d be getting a scholarship for football, basketball, baseball, something like that. Never for video games. It’s crazy.”

Johnson has since largely traded his Eagles jersey for WVU athletic apparel, wearing the school’s insignia while playing on the greatest stage Madden has to offer. It’s usually from the same classroom, too, on the Morgantown campus, where Johnson spends hours practicing alongside a growing list of fellow esports student-athletes and edits and uploads videos for his growing YouTube following.

While he’s an esports star, Johnson is also just a regular college student armed with excellent class-scheduling skills. He set his weekly slate to accommodate the nocturnal tendencies typical of a gamer, waking around 11 a.m. before attending afternoon classes as an economics major. Like traditional student-athletes, Johnson has tutoring sessions to increase his chances of success in the classroom. But instead of hitting the practice field, he picks up a controller for reps that last longer than a typical football or basketball practice, “because you can play video games a lot longer than you can go out and hit each other in practice.”

Those reps have paid off with hardware and plenty of cash prizes, with Johnson’s career earnings currently standing at over $265,000. It’s not quite the same as Leverette’s winnings total of over half a million, but it’s a nice chunk that Johnson aims to grow in the future.

Most likely, Johnson will have to clear the massive hurdle of defeating Leverette if he wants to reach the next level. Johnson’s time spent playing at both the collegiate and professional levels is priming him for another run at a belt. Now, it’s a matter of putting those reps to work when the lights shine brightest.

‘He’s fierce’

In the most anticipated Madden final in recent years, Johnson had a chance to score his greatest victory of his career.

With 44 seconds remaining in the Madden 23 Ultimate Kickoff final and Johnson staring at a 21-17 deficit, he took over at his own 25-yard line. A long completion to the virtual Jerome Bettis put him 37 yards away from victory, and a completion to Randy Moss moved him to Leverette’s 11. Johnson was a little more than a first down from completing a legendary final drive.

It ended in disappointment.

With no timeouts and 15 seconds remaining, Leverette sent the blitz, forcing Johnson to quickly deliver the ball over the middle to Justin Jefferson. He connected with the star, but was tackled short of the end zone, allowing the clock to expire just 3 yards from Madden glory.

“It was everything you wanted in not just a Madden game, but a football game in general,” Madden play-by-play broadcaster Nick Mizesko told me.

It still pains Johnson.

“You gotta bring it up?” Johnson said with a begrudging smile. “(Hits me) right in the chest.”

Johnson’s loss to Leverette meant he wouldn’t take home his third title belt. Instead, Leverette won the battle of Nos. 1 and 2, claiming the $250,000 cash prize and the indisputable bragging rights that come with joining the rare group of Madden players who own a trio of belts.

“It’s always fun playing against him because I just have that competitive drive where I don’t want to play against someone that’s not as good,” Johnson said. “I just love challenging myself and playing against him — obviously, it didn’t end the way I wanted it to end, but you know.”

Wood sees Leverette and Johnson as the LeBron James and Kobe Bryant of Madden, two competitors at the top of their game with the expectation they’ll meet again before long.

“He’s fierce. He likes to talk a lot,” Wood said when describing Johnson. “You hear him talking through all streams. Their rivalry, even though we didn’t see Kobe and LeBron in the (NBA) Finals, that’s kind of where it is.

“Kobe didn’t have expectations coming out. Nobody thought he was going to be Michael Jordan or anything coming out. He didn’t have the pressure LeBron had. But Kobe still had a very successful career, one of the greatest players to ever play, and I think that’s the same thing with Noah. No expectations, clawed his way to the top and he’s won a lot. He’s not going anywhere, either.”

Mizesko agrees with Wood’s assessment, primarily because he sees the same work ethic — the “Mamba Mentality” — for which Bryant became famous.

“His hard work, his mentality, that’s what made (Bryant) great,” Mizesko said. “I think that’s Noah. Noah is always in the lab, always trying to find the best strategies, always trying out new combinations. He’s going to outwork just about anybody out there. That’s his No. 1 goal. If he loses a tournament, that happens. But if he loses a tournament because he didn’t prepare well enough, that’s going to bother him more than anything.”

Much like James and Bryant did at the height of their career arcs, Leverette and Johnson share mutual respect for one another.

“I always tell people if I had to choose anybody that I think is up there with me, I would always say Noah,” Leverette said. “I know I’ve done pretty well, but Noah’s done extremely well, too. He’s in the finals, he just won a belt last year, he’s making pretty much every tourney as well. … Noah can not play for a week, and he’ll go out there and be the top player. He just has that dog in him, man. He knows how to get it done.”

Time will tell at to whether Johnson ends up seizing his place as the Madden king, a title that currently belongs to Leverette. For perhaps the first time in his life, Johnson has been forced to battle through some adversity on the virtual gridiron, which might be exactly what he needs to reach new heights.

The second half of 2022 was something of a season of heartbreak for Johnson. The defeat in the Ultimate Kickoff final was the first blow. Failing to qualify for the Ultimate Thanksgiving live-event final eight didn’t help, nor did a narrow loss in the LevelNext collegiate national championship final, ending his title defense.

But Johnson is far from finished — and he’s already made a mark by proving a future in esports is attainable for younger aspirational gamers, a reality that seemed anything but possible even five years ago.

“When you can go to school and you’re getting your school paid for for playing Madden, what’s separating that from (traditional) sports?” Wood said of Johnson. “You are as valuable as a (traditional) athlete is. That’s why I say the sky is the limit. We’re just getting started. Esports scholarships, they have not been around that long. That is a good sign for the future.

… “They honored you during a halftime of not a basketball game, not a softball, not a baseball — at a football game. That’s the mecca of college athletics. … For them to honor him there, that just shows what they see in him and what they see in these esports stars.”

The next checkpoint on Johnson’s road to glory is simple: Return to a live-event final eight and make a run to a title. He can expect to meet a number of worthy competitors along the way, but the goal remains the same, regardless of who he’s facing on the other side of the screen: Become the best player in the world.

He can do so by winning another belt — especially the most coveted one of all.

“Madden Bowl is our Super Bowl in Madden,” Johnson said. “That’s the one I’m super locked in on, because if you win Madden Bowl, it shows that you’re the best player that year.”

The journey won’t be easy, and after falling short of Madden’s Ultimate Wild Card tournament final eight, he’ll have to keep working toward another chance at professional Madden glory.

Leverette just might be waiting on the other side to meet him once again, and he’s far from the only elite player standing in Johnson’s way. If Johnson finally defeats his familiar nemesis when it matters most, there’s no telling what his future may bring.

“He wants to end his career as being the best Madden player that there has been,” Rob Johnson said. “His goal is, I can tell, that’s what he wants to be.

“(In order to get there, he must) continually work hard and accept his downfalls that are going to come, and continue to strive. And he will make it.”

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