MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University student Noah Johnson has wowed the nation by becoming one of the best Madden players in the world, spearheading WVU’s rising esports program.
Noah Johnson is a WVU economics major from Baltimore, Maryland who had recently come out on top at the Level Next Madden National Championship and the Thanksgiving Madden Championship.
For those unaware, Madden is a football simulation video game that has become popular in the realm of esports, the most recent iteration of which being Madden NFL 22.
Johnson described how he got into the world of esports.
“I started playing professionally when I was in high school, like my senior year of high school, but school and college are a little bit different,” Johnson said. “I saw an article online and I just signed up and played, and then I started winning games, and so just kind of figured out, through the community, how to play in more and more tournaments.”
Being the university’s first recruit, Johnson became the frontrunner for WVU’s burgeoning collegiate esports program.
“I grew up playing regular sports or normal sports, however you want to call it, it’s the same thing. Just being able to compete is the best part about it,” said Johnson. “I like being able to just rely on myself to win and then also just being able to compete; I think that’s the best part about Madden. When I’m playing big games and esports, I don’t really get nervous while other people might get nervous with the pressure on them.”
However, reaching the upper rankings of collegiate Madden is not easy; like normal sports, it takes a lot of work.
“I play a lot of, a lot of lab games where I’ll just play against my buddies,” said Johnson. “And then, I’ll watch a lot of film just like the NFL and college where I can pick up on my opponent’s tendencies and what their favorite players are, figuring out how to stop them.”
With their rising popularity across the world, esports tournaments have begun to boast increasingly large prize pools.
The next major Madden tournament coming up is the Wild Card tournament which boasts a prize pool of $250,000 with first place receiving $75,000.
But even that pales in comparison to the final tournament of the year, the Madden Bowl. The Madden Bowl offers a million-dollar prize pool, with first place getting $250,000. Johnson said, “They might be doing this next one in person, and it’s at the Super Bowl cause the Super Bowl this year is in LA. So, they’re actually having the event in LA for the Super Bowl.”
Madden and other esports did not appear overnight. People at multiple levels of the industry had to see the potential of the new industry and invest their own time and money into growing it.
WVU Director of Esports, Varsity Coach and 2021 National Association of Collegiate Esports Madden Coach of the Year, Josh Steger said, “While I was working at the Potomac state campus that WVU is always… talking about esports and how to get into this space academically, it was kind of on the planning boards for a couple of years as we’re doing the research and getting things going and it just so happened that I was at a position to transition over. And with my transition, we started to form the varsity esports team to be in tangent with a minor that’s coming out for fall of 2022.”
Steger said the new esports minor would be a 15-credit minor and would take place across WVU’s three campuses: Morgantown, Beckley and Keyser.
Esports at WVU doesn’t stop at Madden though. The program is opening up to other video games that students can join in on such as League of Legends, Rocket League, Call of Duty and Valorant.
“What makes us unique, it’s like there are a bunch of power five schools out there, but like, none of them have really put all the effort that they can into esports with, you know, some administrations not really understanding what esports is,” Steger said. “And I think what makes us more unique is that we have an administration that gets the big picture and is willing to, you know, help us get there.”
Steger discussed a desire to “grow the community at WVU” and to develop a permanent place for future esports activities. On top of trying to keep the esports program highly competitive, Steger mentioned wanting to continue “working with other departments on campus, working with our club team, making sure that we can market ourselves and make everything enjoyable.”
Those interested in joining a varsity esports team at WVU can do so through an online form.
For now, both Johnson and Steger prepare for the next tournament with plans to reach the top of competitive Madden.