When Noah Johnson is fully “locked in,“ very few people in the competitive gaming world can touch him. “Locked in” — his phrase — is a hyper-focused state of mind for the first-year economics student at West Virginia University. A native of Baltimore, Md., Noah is WVU’s inaugural official esports player who also happens to be one of the best Madden NFL players in the world. “I just have to be able to flip the switch — flip my mental thoughts to focus entirely on the game,” he said. Madden NFL is the popular EA Sports football video game named for the late John Madden, a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach and commentator.
It’s a game that constantly evolves through updates, known as patches,
which incorporate new play calls and schemes seen on traditional football fields.
It’s one of the most popular games on the gaming circuit, where Johnson is a celebrity known to millions of people as Noahupnxt.
Since enrolling at WVU in August 2021, Johnson has claimed WVU’s first-ever Level Next Madden National Championship at the collegiate level and won the Ultimate Madden Championship Series professionally, collecting tens of thousands of dollars in prize money along the way and setting the tone for esports at WVU. He also competed in the quarterfinals of the 2022 Ultimate Madden Bowl, the biggest tournament of the year.
“I’m just playing a game that I’ve been playing since I was a little kid, and I guess I’m pretty good at it,” he said.
Esports — competitive, organized video gaming — is now a $1 billion-plus industry annually in the U.S. alone. Players compete individually or as part of teams in a range of games at different levels. Johnson participates in both college and professional competitions, which are separate.
Spectators watch the games in person, when permitted, on TV or via online streaming platforms. Globally, esports viewership set records in 2021. Stateside, during that same time, some estimates indicate professional esports drew more viewers than any other professional sports league except the NFL. The bulk of those viewers are younger — prime targets for sponsors to feed revenues. Companies back players as well.
COVID-19 has largely kept most gaming competitions virtual for the past two years. Johnson’s last in-person tournament was the EA Madden 2020 Challenge, televised on ESPN2, which he won at age 17, not long after he began professional play — making him the youngest player to ever claim the $35,000 prize.
While the money is good, Johnson said, more than anything he’s in it for the fun of the competition.
Johnson’s playing style is about confidence, drawing on experience plus extensive practice reps and analysis of statistical probabilities with a strong emphasis on clock management, along with elements of showmanship and, at times, all-out trash talk, much different from his more low-key campus persona.
“When I’m playing, I get a little loud and all that type of stuff but, on a normal day, I’m pretty relaxed,” Johnson said.
Some of his fellow students regularly recognize the gaming star on campus. Others have no idea they’re in class with a champion.
Josh Steger, WVU’s pioneering esports director and varsity coach
Johnson is the first recruit — a high-bar setting one — for Josh Steger, the University’s pioneering esports director and varsity coach who arrived in Morgantown in 2020. He had already fielded champion esports teams playing Madden, Rocket League — a vehicular soccer video game — and Valorant — a first-person shooter video game — at WVU Potomac State College in Keyser, a program he also built from the ground level.
Steger was a fan of Johnson, who previously played while at the University of Maryland, and set out to bring him to WVU.
“Once Noah’s playing, you know there’s going to be a show. He’s going to play well or he’s going make the game super interesting or he’s going to have some of the funniest talking during the match that gets people going,” Steger said.
Steger started in esports as a player in Madden, League of Legends, a teams-based battle arena video game, and Rocket League, before beginning to transition into esports coaching late in 2018.
By 2021, he had been named the National Association of Collegiate Esports Madden Coach of the Year.
The association formed in 2016 when seven colleges and universities had varsity esports programs. Today, that number has grown to more than 170 institutions offering about $16 million per year in scholarships. Plans call for WVU to begin competing within the association in fall 2022.
Above all else, Steger works with his players — many who may not have had opportunities in traditional sports for a variety of reasons — on mental preparedness.
“As an esports coach, I can’t talk to students once they get into games. Unless there’s a pause or there’s a next battle or the game ends, I’m not allowed to communicate with them so, for me, it’s really important that they’re able to be mentally tough and focused and that they have everything ready before the game starts,” Steger said.
“Once the game starts, I’m hands-off. I can’t do anything compared with Bob Huggins, who can yell at any point to get his players on track. Me, I’ve got to let my players do what they do.”
There are times, he admitted, when being the coach can be more stressful than being the player. While limited to watching, “I’m doing everything that they’re doing. I know their game plan. I know exactly the rhythm and what plays they’re probably going to call and so I’m making all the same reads.”
Steger moved to WVU in Morgantown with a list of immediate goals and has been moving quickly to check things off that list.
For the 2022 spring semester, his recruiting class included nearly 20 new students from California, Missouri and Colorado along with Mexico and Canada. They play games beyond Madden: Valorant, Call of Duty and Rocket League.
Steger recruited several of those players. Others reached out to him, seeking a place to play at the collegiate level.
“We found a few looking to transfer or they weren’t even attending school, so I’m really impressed with what we were able to pick up,” Steger said.
By fall 2022, the number of varsity players is expected to grow to 30 across five total game titles with the addition of League of Legends, coinciding with the launch of the University’s new esports minor.
Students will have the option of pursuing a 15-credit minor in esports, in person or online, across the three campuses — Morgantown, Beckley and Keyser — with core classes and electives in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, the Reed College of Media and the College of Physical Activity and Sports Sciences (soon to be part of the new College of Applied Human Sciences).
Steger said those who don’t get a spot on the varsity team or who have no interest in competing themselves, but who want to be involved in gaming industry marketing, design and other sectors within that ecosystem, will have opportunities to learn, making them more employable after graduation in the always-growing $160 billion worldwide gaming industry.
“At the end of the day, they get an education, so they have a backup plan,” he said, noting a “high probability” that WVU’s esports minor will eventually become an esports major.
Steger is taking a student-focused approach to growing esports at WVU, both athletically and academically. “I tell students that this program is whatever you’re looking to put in effort-wise,” he said.
“We try to really cater our experience to whatever the student wants to gain.”
Planning is in the beginning stages for a permanent state-of-the-art gaming center. The center will feature space for classrooms, player training and support services, an arena for live competitions in front of spectators with a broadcasting booth, plus room for club teams and community play of all types of games, including designated areas for the development of local high school esports teams.
That is part of planned outreach, tied to future recruitment, for WVU esports. “We’re going to try to expand high school sports as we start to grow as a program,” Steger said.
As that expansion is happening, a reintroduction is in the works at the industry level for an NCAA Football video game from EA Sports, a relaunch of a game that was discontinued years ago due to issues with usage of college player names, images and likenesses. These are now allowed under new NCAA rules.
Instead of Madden, collegiate championships may eventually be won with the NCAA Football game, meaning Johnson and other WVU players like him could one day be fielding a Mountaineer team.
Already when he’s representing the gold and blue, Steger said Johnson is playing for something more than himself.
“He has a whole school behind him, and I think that’s something that he was really missing beforehand,” Steger said of his champion player who is notorious for not getting frazzled.
“Stressful situations, he kind of thrives in them, honestly. He finds a way to lock himself in and just not be bothered by the rest of the things that are going on around him.”
A former baseball player who now works with an esports agent along with a coach, Johnson’s Madden gaming training varies. He builds in designated no-play times so he doesn’t get burned out, but ramps up his play in the weeks before competitions to as much as 10 to 12 hours each day.
At the same time, he’s a college student working on an economics degree who finished the fall 2021 semester with a 4.0 GPA.
“I keep myself on a pretty strict schedule, and it’s just time management,” Johnson said. “I try to stay focused on one thing, knock it out and keep on pushing.”
At age 19, he doesn’t yet know if esports will be a lifelong pursuit for him.
“I love to compete. I think I’d be able to have fun playing any type of game,” he said. “When the lights are on, I’m just having fun out there.”
It’s that kind of esports enthusiasm that Steger said he thinks will bring all kinds of students and a lot of attention to WVU, more and more every year. “We are starting off really strong,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride so far. Hopefully, it just keeps going.”