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

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.

“You gotta bring it up?” Johnson said with a begrudging smile. “(Hit 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 who’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 Maddentwo competitors at the top of their game with the expectation that 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 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 each other.

“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’t 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 whether Johnson ends up seizing his place Madden king, a title that currently belongs to Leverette. For perhaps the first time in his life, Johnson has been forced to fight 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 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 haven’t 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 the 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 towards 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 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) continuously work hard and accept his downfalls that are going to come, and continue to strive. And he will make it.”

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