When a third-down stop cemented Henry Leverette's place in competitive Madden history, he had no choice but to contain his emotions.
After all, the last time he'd let them spill out, it hurt his pockets.
"When I won the Madden Bowl last year, back in Madden 22, the last tourney, I said a few choice words right after winning," Leverette told me recently. "They weren't too appreciative of that. They fined me a little bit of money for that."
The little bit of money that comprised the fine by tournament host EA Sports added up to $2,500. But it was a small price to pay for Leverette, who banked $250,000 for winning that Madden Bowl, giving him his second straight Madden Championship Series title belt and pushing his career earnings north of $500,000.
Fast-forward to the final of the Madden NFL 23 Ultimate Kickoff tournament this September, when Leverette faced off against his toughest competitor, Noah Johnson, an esports scholarship student athlete at West Virginia University and the No. 2 player in the world. The showdown was a battle for the ages and came down to the final play, mere yards from the virtual end zone. Known more for his offense than his defense, Leverette stood surprisingly tall, tackling Johnson's receiver (Justin Jefferson) at Leverette's 3-yard line. With no timeouts left for Johnson, the clock expired, giving Leverette his third title in legendary fashion.
Leverette became the unquestioned top player in the Madden Championship Series with that triumph, completing a streak in which he won three straight MCS title belts and reached 11 straight live event final eights. It was a run the likes of which was previously unseen in the Madden landscape.
Leverette had taken control of the throne with an iron grip. So call him King Henry if you'd like. He's earned it.
"It's straight. It's cool," Leverette said of the nickname. "I've had so many nicknames, man. Hen Dog, my family calls me Man Man. I'm cool with whatever."
Leverette's hot streak eventually ended later in the year, with a defeat at the hands of his close friend, no less. Now, beyond winning games and stacking prize money, Leverette might have a point to prove: The King isn't going away any time soon.
'I used to lose a lot'
Born in Munster, Indiana, Leverette spent his formative years as one of 14 siblings growing up outside of Chicago, in Braidwood, Illinois, the third-oldest in his family. At 19 years old, he's considered a phenom of sorts in the Madden world.
That hasn't always been the case. Leverette began playing Madden in 2012 with Madden NFL 13, taking his Chicago Bears and manipulating their roster in an effort to achieve his sole goal: destroy the computer-controlled opponent, set on the lowest difficulty level, by 70 points.
"I was pretty bad back then, but that was my excitement," Leverette said.
Though it's not a nickname, per se, Leverette could also be called Junior. Leverette is named after his father, with whom he played Madden growing up, deploying Devin Hester and using the legendary return man's speed to torch his dad in their showdowns.
It was around this time that Leverette discovered the thrill of head-to-head online competition. He also learned just how much he hated losing.
"I used to lose a lot, and it used to bother me," Leverette said of his early days playing virtually against fellow humans. "I just spent a lot of time playing nonstop, trying to get better so I can beat people."
Leverette had a bit of a competitive advantage over his peers at that time. While many were spending their days in school, the home-schooled Leverette was being taught by his mother, who, in his recollection, was motivated to take control of his education after she saw her son getting bored with the standard in-school curriculum.
In his free time, he liked to draw his favorite characters -- Dragon Ball Z's Goku, for example -- play basketball and play Madden, which eventually became his priority.
"I was in the house a lot more than any regular kid," Leverette explained. "As soon as I finished my school, it was like, 'Let me go get on the game.' I was playing Madden a lot then. That was a big help, just being able to play so much. I feel like if I was in public school, I definitely wouldn't be where I am today."
While Leverette would spend much of the day doing schoolwork on the computer, he became adept at multitasking, simultaneously watching Madden videos uploaded by some of the best players in the competitive landscape at the time. Eventually, those content creators became his role models, so much that he'd run around the house brimming with excitement after one of the YouTubers intercepted a pass, repeating their catchphrases out of admiration.
Recalling this time in his life, Leverette sheepishly admitted, "I used to think they were so cool."
"It helped a lot," Leverette said. "I always tell people this: Madden is a skill thing, but I would say it's more knowledge than skill. Knowing what does what helps a lot. Even if you're not that great of a player, if you know they have this guy in a Cover 2 in the back, you can hit a streak up the middle, then you're gonna get past that."
Those in the real football world would agree: The weakness of a standard Cover 2 defense is the deep middle. Leverette learned this through his own film study of sorts, completed while he was still working his way through math and history.
Those hours spent refining his skills put him on a path to esports glory he likely never could have imagined -- but he faced his share of frustrations along the way.
'I was always good enough, I felt like'
Leverette's talent has been on display since he was allowed to compete professionally, starting at 16 years old. His eventual rise came as no surprise to those tuned into the Madden Championship Series. But before he broke through, Leverette was little more than a skilled player who struggled to get the job done.
Leverette reached his first major final at 16, arriving at the 512-player Madden Classic tournament in Arlington, Texas, in 2019 and fighting his way through a massive field to face an opponent, Serious Moe, who already had a title belt to his name. Though he was barely old enough to drive a car, Leverette pushed the established veteran to a winner-take-all final game. Leverette fell short of his goal but opened the eyes of the Madden world to his potential.
"At that point, you're just like, 'This kid is great,' " Madden play-by-play announcer Nick Mizesko told me recently.
Leverette's Madden moment was far from guaranteed. He'd saved up his own money to get to Arlington to play in the Madden Classic, the first tournament in which he was old enough to compete, with the belief he was, in fact, good enough to play for a title. He'd spent his last dollar flying himself and his mother, who wasn't as certain about the prospects of the Madden Classic, to Texas. If Leverette was going to become a Madden pro, that was his chance.
"My mom wasn't too sure about it because I wasn't allowed to compete in tournaments, and I'd tell her I was good," Leverette recalled. ... "I got second place and won $25,000, and I also qualified for the tournament at the end of the year, which is an extra $10,000. So pretty much I won $35,000 guaranteed.
"Once she saw that, she was all the way locked in."
When Leverette and his Madden pals went out to celebrate after the Madden Classic concluded, he needed a friend to cover his meal. But he'd sold his mother on his potential, having secured that handsome $25,000 check to continue his pursuits.
From there, Henry became a household name, qualifying for the live final eight in each of the next 11 events and winning consecutive Eagles Club Championships. The accomplishment was remarkable -- but in each of his first eight appearances, Leverette went home without a coveted title belt.
"In so many of these (tournaments), he got eliminated maybe a little earlier than we thought he would," Mizesko said. "And we went: 'Is this guy Phil Mickelson?' Remember, Mickelson was a great college golfer at Arizona State, everybody went, 'This guy is going to take over the golf world.' Oops, Tiger Woods is here, how ya' doing? Enjoy finishing second a lot."
The disappointing narrative continued through the Madden NFL 21 season, in which Leverette continued to reach live final eights, but repeatedly failed to win a title.
"I was always good enough, I felt like," Leverette said. "My biggest problem was I was pretty bad at managing a game. I would just do a lot of uncharacteristic things and it would just lose me the game. I would go in a game, and I would come out, and everyone would say, 'You looked like the better player, you just kind of gave the game to him.' I was just making a lot of mistakes."
The "uncharacteristic things" of the past included avoidable errors, taking the field with an inferior team, accidentally dialing up press coverage or committing to defend the run and giving up free touchdowns, as well as badly mismanaging situations late in games. In one instance, he moved the ball at will but threw six interceptions, leading to an overtime loss.
Throughout these failures, Leverette's talent was evident. But he couldn't get over the hump, leading to questions like the one Mizesko posited.
"I had a lot of losses where I just didn't know how to manage a game or anything like that," Leverette said.
'He's No. 1 in the world for a reason'
Everything changed permanently for Leverette with the Madden NFL 22 season.
Realizing a change of scenery might be necessary to help him reach his goal, Leverette packed his bags in search of a new home base -- and more importantly, reliable internet. After battling internet lag for years from his home in Illinois, Leverette found stability in Austin, Texas, along with a new roommate: Wesley Gittens, one of the fellow rising stars in Madden that Leverette befriended as he began to pursue the game seriously.
Around that same time, Leverette's Madden career reached new heights.
His reign began in the Ultimate Wild Card tournament in January of this year, in which Leverette finally reached the Madden mountaintop by defeating K3rryQ in the final. Foreshadowing his victory over Johnson this September, Leverette needed one last stop near the end zone to win, batting down a pass on the final play to secure his first title belt and silence any doubt that he could finish the job.
It continued in the Madden Bowl in February 2022, where Leverette took down Wesley with a last-second touchdown pass to win what is considered the Super Bowl of Madden, capping an incredible year for the player once known simply as a phenom.
Leverette wasn't done with the Madden Bowl, though. When the Ultimate Kickoff tournament -- the first tournament of the new Madden NFL 23 season -- reached its final, Leverette was there once again to battle for a belt.
As he emerged victorious over Johnson, his standing was confirmed: Leverette was one of the best to ever play Madden.
"I am like the top of the top," Leverette said, only after being coerced into explaining his Madden standing. "I've done just about every single thing possible. I've been No. 1 the last three tournaments in a row, and before I was even getting No. 1, I was making every single live event, which is pretty rare. I've been playing Madden for around three years competitively now; that's when I was allowed to compete. I'm almost No. 1 in live events made, and Madden has been doing competitive since Madden 16 (2015). A lot of people had four-year head starts, and I'm already caught up with them.
"Without sounding too crazy, I'm as good as it gets, pretty much."
"He's No. 1 in the world for a reason," Noah Johnson told me. "He's won three straight tournaments. His preparation for games is unmatched. His ability to adjust in the middle of the game, always make plays, he's definitely one of the best players in the world and definitely deserves it.
… "It's always fun playing against him because I just have that competitive drive where I don't want to play against someone that's not as good. I just love challenging myself and playing against him -- obviously it didn't end the way I wanted it to end, but you know."
'He takes his losses with maturity'
So, about that loss.
Leverette entered the Ultimate Thanksgiving tournament as the unquestioned king of competitive Madden, and no one appeared poised to stop his reign -- except the one opponent who once shared an apartment with him.
With a berth in the tournament's final eight on the line, Leverette met Wesley in a win-and-in game in October. Unfortunately for Leverette, it was a perfect opportunity for Wesley -- who had since moved out of their shared apartment into his own home -- to earn some revenge.
Leverette fell to Wesley's Falcons in the elimination game, ending an unprecedented run that lasted over 1,100 days and spanned 11 tournaments,. The unquestioned favorite was removed from Madden's latest competition.
As those who advanced licked their chops, Leverette again felt the sting of defeat he'd left behind in the early months of Madden NFL 22.
"I dominated the first half and somehow only ended up one point ahead because I was just doing stupid stuff," Leverette said. "It looked like the old me."
The "stupid stuff" reared its ugly head at the worst possible time, forcing Leverette to watch his fellow competitors battle it out for a title belt he expected to be his.
Dwayne "Cleff the God" Wood, an elite player without a title belt to his name who is also a close friend of Leverette's, knew that feeling all too well.
"He takes his losses with maturity," Wood told me. "He ain't out here pointing fingers. He looked in the mirror and said he just didn't play a good game offensively and he got outplayed.
"Eventually, it was going to happen. He ran into Wesley, another great player, another top Madden player in the world. Sometimes, it's just not your day, and in that specific moment, he picked the wrong time to not bring his best game."
"Losing to your friend is worse than losing to a stranger. I'd rather lose to a stranger 1,000 times before I lose to somebody I talk to, because I don't want to hear it. And you don't want to hear me, either."
Until the next tournament, Leverette will have to hear from doubters who want to see him knocked from his No. 1 perch, but as someone who says he enjoys playing the villain role, he's built for it. And although Madden is highly competitive, his friendship with Wesley hasn't been affected by their latest battle. The two still go to the gym and go out to eat together regularly, even after ending their time spent as roommates.
"He is the best player there is in the MCS era." -- Nick Mizesko on Henry Leverette
This loss might help fuel Leverette's next title push, but it's not as if he needs it. Leverette is also driven to help those most important to him.
"The only goal I have on my mind is I want to retire my mom," Leverette said. "That's the main thing. That's the only thing. That's the biggest thing if I could do anything."
Leverette "grew up pretty poor," and now he assists his family as much as possible financially. He's already purchased his sister a car and has paid his mother's bills for the year, and he's not about to stop there.
Leverette sells e-books detailing his winning Madden strategy, is spending an increasing amount of time broadcasting his Madden games on Twitch to his nearly 18,000 followers, and is focused on growing his brand beyond his on-field skills. He's also interested in investing his winnings in real estate and the stock market, seeking advice from those who are better informed on such matters than he is.
"I need to win more. Need to promote myself more," Leverette said. "I really just gotta work harder, man."
At 19 years old, he has the whole world in front of him. He's already conquered the Madden sphere -- well, at least for nearly a calendar year.
"He, in my opinion, is the greatest Madden player in the MCS era," Mizesko said. "We've had a lot of great ones. We have a three-time belt-winner in Michael Skimbo, who had a great run. But nobody has ever gone not just 11 for 11 in qualifying for majors, but won three belts in a row across two different games.
"People don't realize, these games, they're not just roster updates every year. These games change, the physics change, what plays work change. He has won three straight belts in two different games; that's like winning a golf tournament and then going and winning a putt-putt tournament later. It's a different game; we're doing different things now.
"I think that's where he has sort of solidified himself as the top of the top. He is the best player there is in the MCS era."
Despite this latest setback, there's plenty of time in this Madden season and beyond for Henry to add yet more proof to that claim.