The San Francisco 49ers offense lines up on its own 18-yard line.
Jimmy Garoppolo signals a tight end in motion and hands off to running back Matt Breida, who hits the hole and runs 82 yards untouched for the touchdown.
“Touchdown. It’s that easy,” said Noah Johnson, the 17-year-old gamer who was controlling Breida’s legs with his thumbs on his PlayStation 4 joystick. “I’m really the best player in the world.”
Johnson, of Ellicott City, was streaming an online game of the NFL video game Madden 20 on Twitch, and the braggadocio wasn’t baseless. A few weeks prior — from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 — Johnson had won the 2020 Madden Challenge at EA’s headquarters in Redwood City, California, which earned him a $35,000 grand prize and recognition as one of the video game’s top competitive players.
“It was a super cool experience,” Johnson said of the tournament. “It was my first Madden Challenge, so I was just thankful to be in there.”
For Johnson, becoming the youngest player to win the annual tournament, which was streamed online and then rebroadcast on ESPN2, confirmed the confidence he built up during the online qualifiers and garnered him increased notoriety within the Madden competitive scene. For his parents, the event and his success in it gave them a heightened sense of comfort about their son’s talent and his place in the esports community.
Like many kids, when Noah was young, he’d play video games with his father.
“I probably played as much as he did,” said Rob Johnson, Noah’s dad. “We’d play all the time. It was fun because I could beat him. That’s not the case anymore.”
Noah started playing Madden when he was 12 after he got a PS3. He’s played several other games in the last five years — MLB The Show, Call of Duty, NBA 2K, Fortnite and others — but none were as fun for him as Madden. He’d watch NFL games on Sundays and then want to recreate what he saw on TV in his games.
Most people who think they’re good at video games believe so because they beat their friends, and that’s how it started for Noah.
But then he wanted to test himself against better competition. He joined some online tournaments when he was 15, and last year is when he had some success in those competitions. His first tournament win was a WorldGaming tournament, and the grand prize was $300. While his $35,000 prize from the Madden Challenge dwarfs his initial prize, the confidence he gained was more important than the money.
“That’s when I realized I could actually do this,” Noah said.
When Noah received the email from EA with the information on the Madden Challenge, his mom was skeptical.
“When EA said they’d pay for our travel, she didn’t think it was legit,” Noah said.
Shelley Johnson, Noah’s mom, has a business client in California, so she traveled with Noah to the Madden Challenge thinking she’d make it a business trip before realizing the event was more serious than she envisioned.
“I thought they’d just sit at a table and play a quick game and then we’d have this free time,” she said. “When we were out there, it was a whole alternative universe for me. The biggest eye-opening experience in my mind was how much skill and thought process this takes. The level of preparation and understanding of the game and how to manipulate it was pretty mind-blowing. I was pretty shocked at how much talent it took.”
She also met the other players at the tournament, and their demeanor and success gave her more respect for the industry.
“Everyone he played against were professional gamers. They play in tournaments and some have streams and sponsors,” she said. “They were all super nice and kind. There might be this persona when they’re playing, but when we were out or at the hotel they were so nice and genuine. If anything, I walk away with more respect for this whole industry to see what it can to do create an inclusive environment.”
With gaming popularity soaring, parents across the country sometimes struggle with how much their kids are playing in relation to their other responsibilities.
For Shelley and Rob, that hasn’t been an issue with Noah, who gets good grades and is a pitcher on DeMatha’s baseball team as a senior.
“It would be a different thing if he wasn’t doing well in school,” said Shelley, who is a government contractor in the aerospace field. “If he was just playing video games 24-7, I would be concerned, but we see how balanced he is. We’ve never felt that it got to a point that it was overwhelming.”
Noah said balancing school, sports and gaming can get difficult. He typically only plays 15-20 hours a week, which is less than most of his competitors. That’s why, Noah said, he plays wager games for money, because it ensures his opponent is taking the game seriously.
“It can definitely be hard to balance everything,” Noah said. “There’s not much downtime. I’m trying to capitalize on all the time I have.”
Now, however, Noah — like many Americans who are spending more time at home due to the coronavirus — is playing more Madden due to the cancellations of school and baseball.
“Having this time has allowed me to improve my stream and my game," Noah said.
Rob first realized his son’s passion for gaming when he saw him watching gaming videos on YouTube when Noah was younger. As the gaming industry has grown, so has the streaming industry, with companies like Facebook, YouTube, Mixer and most notably Twitch as platforms for gamers to display their live content online.
“I used to laugh because he’d watch other people play video games,” said Rob, who is a retired state probation officer. “I would think it was a waste of his time.”
Prior to the Madden Challenge, Rob was the one who would take Noah to tournaments. The first one was in Philadelphia, and that’s when Rob realized how talented his son was.
“There was this tiny satellite tournament in Philadelphia a year or two ago,” said Rob, who also took Noah to tournaments in Arlington and Las Vegas where he won a combined $3,500. “That was the first time I’d ever seen Noah really show a ton of passion for something other than sports. That was when I realized he was that good.”
After Noah — whose gamertag and Twitch name is “NoahUpNxt” — won the championship game, 14-6, over “CleffTheGod,” he tweeted at former NFL star running back Chris Johnson.
“I love you @ChrisJohnson28,” read the tweet.
Noah ran CJ2K, who he drafted as part of the draft mode for the competitive tournament, to the championship belt, including a 73-yard touchdown run, over Cleff that gave him a berth in the Madden Bowl, the finale of the Madden Championship Series.
Prior to the title game, though, Noah felt as if he was “overlooked” during the tournament.
He was one of 16 competitors at the tournament, which were determined off months of online qualifiers. Out of hundreds of players, the top 96 gamers per console — PS4 and Xbox — qualified and the field was winnowed by a double-elimination tournament down to eight per gaming system. Noah “breezed” through the online qualifiers and was No. 1 on the leaderboards on PS4. Despite this, his young age led to people doubting him even when he earned a bid to the tournament in Redwood City, which is 30 minutes south of San Francisco.
Another reason Noah may not have garnered the respect of the top players on the leaderboard was his play style. He almost exclusively runs the ball on offense, relying on inside running plays to churn the clock and take the air out of his opponent. After he won the tournament to become the youngest Madden Championship Series major tournament winner ever, several Twitter users posted with objections to his play style.
“I was definitely slept on,” he said. “I was pretty confident going into it. A lot of people slept on me, which I think was good. I think they overlooked me when we played.”
In his element
For the people watching the Madden Challenge, they may think Noah is hyper and cocky. During his championship game, he would stand up and scream after he scored or made a big play on defense.
Away from the controller, Noah’s parents say he’s laid back. On the sticks, though, they say Noah flips a switch and is in his “element.”
“He shows so much emotion when he’s playing, but he’s not usually like that,” Rob said. “He’s pretty reserved except when he’s on the baseball field or playing Madden.”
During the tournament, Noah received his acceptance letter to the University of Maryland, but he doesn’t yet know if he’s going to attend college or focus on his gaming career.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” he said. “I’m just going to take it tournament by tournament.”
Now, Noah is focused on building up his Twitch stream and preparing for the Madden Bowl, which has been moved from Redwood City in late April to an online tournament from May 6-16 due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. The total cash prize pool of the Madden Bowl is $220,000.
While many gamers have trouble building up a stream, Noah has gained more than 1,000 followers and 23 subscribers in the last two months. With more time to play and stream with the cancellation of school and baseball due to the coronavirus, Noah’s passion for Madden — the emotion and confidence his parents notice — will have a time to flourish.
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“Since I have all this hype around me, I have to capitalize,” Noah said.