Competitive Madden is nothing new — you have, assuredly, found yourself watching games broadcast somewhere on the ESPN family of networks at one point or another while you’ve been flipping the channels in the search of something to watch. But in our current climate, one defined in part by a lack of sports, the increasingly-popular option of watching eSports is turning into an opportunity to get lost in some sort of sporting event to one extent or another.
This increased popularity, something that was occurring even before society found itself caught up in a pandemic, has led to increased visibility for those who participate in eSports. An example from the world of Madden will be on display this weekend, as two competitive players — Noah Johnson and Dwayne Wood, known respectively by their competitive names “Noah” and “CleffTheGod” — will get featured on ESPN’s Road to the Madden Bowl. The program airs this Saturday at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN2.
Both Johnson and Wood will compete against one another in group play during the upcoming Madden NFL 20 Bowl, a tournament that looks to determine the best Madden player in the world. The pair have some history against one another, as Johnson topped Wood in a recent Madden NFL Championship Series event.
Prior to the program hitting the airwaves, Uproxx Gaming spoke to Johnson — a 17-year-old high school senior who’s headed to the University of Maryland next year — about the game, the upcoming tournament, and balancing his two lives as student and a competitive gamer.
With everything that’s been going on over the last month or two, have you been playing more Madden than usual or have you been staying in your routine of what you would normally do with training and focusing on getting better in the game?
I’ve actually been playing a lot more Madden recently just because I’ve been at home almost all day every day because of what’s been going on. I’d be going to school from like 9-3 and then have baseball practice after that. So I wouldn’t be getting home until 7:30, 8:00 and only be able to play like three to four hours a day. But now, I can play a lot more just because I have a lot more time. So it’s actually been kind of nice.
Before all of this, when you’ve gotten a chance to really focus on playing Madden, what would go into a normal day of just training and focusing on improving in the game?
— Noah (@NoahUpNxt) February 2, 2020
I’d probably play from 8:00 to 11:00, 11:30, so like three and a half hours and that’s mostly just the games against, like on the leaderboards or wagers against other people for money because I feel like that’s the best way for me to get better. Because if people are putting money up, then obviously they’re going to be playing their best game. So I know what I’m going after and also I can win some money, too, if I’m playing well.
I want to ask about that routine and whether you get into any sort of rhythm, especially when you have a big event like the Madden Bowl coming up. Do you try and follow the same routine day in and day out, or do you alter that within the context of you have school, you have baseball, those sorts of things, even when you have some sort of really serious event upcoming?
I just kind of play it by ear. Obviously, I try to get on the game and usually when I prepare on the game, I’ll go into practice mode for a little bit and before the games. But no, I don’t really have like a crazy schedule like that. I just kind of play it by ear because sometimes I’ll be on the game until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. So I’m still trying to get a couple hours of sleep at night. It really just depends.
So you’re in high school, believe I saw you’re heading Maryland next year. How do you balance being a normal high schooler with dedicating time to getting to the level that you are in Madden?
There’s a lot of time management that goes into it, because obviously, I want to do everything that a normal senior in high school would want to do. But being one of the best at the game obviously takes a lot of time. So I really don’t have that much downtime as opposed as other people. I’m always doing something, whether it be hanging out with my friends, doing schoolwork, going to school, or obviously playing the game.
So when you’re playing Madden against normal folks, like your friends, someone like me who is a very casual Madden player, what’s normally the biggest difference in terms of how the more casual player plays compared to a more competitive player?
Well, right away, once we load up and we’re on the play call screen, I can tell if someone’s a casual or not. Because if they pick their play instantly, I know more than likely they’re using coach suggestions. And so I can tell right there that they’re more of a casual guy. And also if they’re not using a linebacker, which is what most competitive people do — linebacker or a safety — if their user is the defensive line, I could tell that they’re probably not that competitive.
Interesting. So when did you decide to start participating in more competitive games of Madden and how did that lead to you participating in the Madden Championship Series?
I’ve been playing Madden for six or seven years and I would play their Ultimate Team game mode and just play their leaderboards on that. And then once I realized that I was pretty good on the leaderboards and growing pretty high, I realized I could take it to the next level and compete in these tournaments. But I had to wait until I was 16 because they have an age limit. So I didn’t start playing until the last year, but I didn’t really put that much time into it as opposed to this year because I was more focused on school. But I went all in this year and it all paid off.
Let’s talk about your game. I read that one of your biggest strengths is your rushing attack. Before we get into that specifically, I imagine when you play competitively, you can decide to focus on any aspect of the game and refining that and having that become a strength of yours. Is that fair?
Yeah, for sure. For this year, I focused, going on your point about my running attack, I focused my game style to running the ball because I feel like this year, it’s run-heavy, you’re going to have a better chance if you run the ball. And so I’m always going to do whatever it gives you the best chance to win. So this year, it was running the ball a lot, so I really tried to make my running game the best it could be.
So you’re basically letting the game dictate what you decide to be good at. Is that a good way of putting it?
For sure. Some people, no matter the game mode, probably the most popular formation in the game is a gun bunch if you’re going to pass the ball. And no matter the game, people are going to be coming out on that every single game and that can have its pros and cons. Like, this year, it’s really hard to pass. So I might’ve been in gun bunch last year when it was easier, but now, I’m going to be in I formation running the ball, just because it gives me the best chance to win.
So if all things are equal, a Madden game isn’t designed so you are best running the ball or best out of certain formation, what is your ideal way to play the game?
Well, playing the game when you’re passing the ball, I must say. Passing the ball is probably a lot more fun to watch, in my opinion, like if you’re watching a football game. And it can be fun when people are in the trenches running the ball for three to four yards a carry, but watching, like, Patrick Mahomes airing out the ball, that’s probably the best way to watch football, in my opinion. That’s the same way with Madden. When two passers are going at it, it’s a super, super fun to watch, and I enjoy passing the ball as well. But this year it’s really hard to.
What makes you say that?
The added abilities to this year’s game. There’s D-line abilities that make it so they just shed really quick. The blocking isn’t that great this year, in my opinion. It’s kind of more realistic, so you have less time in the pocket and you gotta make quicker reads. Running the ball’s a lot easier. A lot less that goes into it, you just got to play the numbers game, realize who’s blocking who, and yeah, find a hole.
And your other strength is rattling opponents. How do you do that and why is that such an important part of the game to you?
I’m one of the youngest, I was actually the youngest to win a belt, but I’m one of the youngest always in the tournament. Other guys, they’re are a lot older than me. I really like to get in people’s heads and I feel like that’s just what helps me a lot, because I know if I can get in your head, then you’re not focusing on the game, you’re focusing on me, and I know that I’ve already won the game if you’re not even focusing on the game anymore. So I’ll be talking trash almost all game and if I’m doing well, you’re going to hear about it. So I feel like that’s probably my biggest strength.
So let’s talk about the tournament. First, could you just map out how you got to this point?
To the Madden Bowl?
I qualified via the challenge, the Madden Challenge, which was the last tournament, and I won that tournament. So that allowed me to qualify for the Madden Bowl.
Cool. And for just a second, how much experience do you have against the other three players in your group and to whatever extent you have them, what are your thoughts on them?
I actually played Cleff, one of the people in that group in the championship in the Madden challenge and I ended up beating him. But I know he’s a super good player, so that’s going to be a really good game. And same with Lil Man and Schemin. I’ve watched these guys play a lot in the other tournaments. I’ve never played them in a tournament, but I’ve played them offline a ton, and I’m prepared for them. I know they’re really good players, so it should be some really good games.
And how do you make sure that you get out of your group and move on to the knockout portion of the bracket?
I just really try to take it one game at a time. I realize if I win my first game, you have a really good shot of moving on. Because all you need to do is you just got to get third out of the group, and all I care about is advancing. I don’t care if I’m first, second, or third. So I just really want to win at least one game, take it one game by one game, win the first game, then win the second game, then try to win the third game. But got to make sure I win the first game.
Among the other 12 people in this, is there anyone you especially want to play and why them?
No, I don’t really care who I play. I kind of play the game instead of the name. I’m just going to play my game no matter who I’m playing. But I’m not going to let who I’m playing dictate how I play, I’m just excited to play anyone.
A few final questions here. First off, if you end up winning this, I know you’re going to college in the fall, would the belt be coming with you or would you leave that one at home?
I already got one. I might have to leave one belt here and bring one to college. We’ll see. We’ll make that decision when it happens.
Then my last question, you could play Madden with anyone in the world. Who are you picking and why?
Man, that’s a good question. Put me on the spot here. I don’t know, I’ve seen [Baltimore Raves receiver] Hollywood Brown play, I just saw him play in a celebrity tournament. He was a really good player. I’d love to play against him sometime.