For Dwayne Wood, winning Madden Championship Series belt would be 'greatest feeling in the world'

Dwayne Wood (also known as Cleff The God) has a 60-18 career Madden record -- but he's still looking for his first Madden Championship Series belt. (Courtesy EA Sports.)
Dwayne Wood (also known as Cleff The God) has a 60-18 career Madden record -- but he's still looking for his first Madden Championship Series belt. (Courtesy EA Sports.)

When the late Marty Schottenheimer implored his Browns players to "get the gleam" during a motivational speech before the 1986 AFC Championship Game, he could have been talking to Dwayne Wood.

Yes, the man known to the competitive Madden NFL community as "Cleff The God" already has a diamond-encrusted PlayStation controller pendant that is plenty shiny. But Wood wants more:

A gold-plated Madden Championship Series belt.

The Madden Championship Series is a set of tournaments, including four "live events," tentpole competitions featuring games broadcast live on Twitch and YouTube, the last of which is the Ultimate Madden Bowl. If the Ultimate Madden Bowl is like the Super Bowl, then the tournaments that precede it in the MCS are like conference championship games. The final eight competitors in each live event earn points toward qualifying for the Ultimate Madden Bowl. The winners capture not just substantial credibility among Madden gamers, but also a coveted Madden belt.

Wood is among the final eight competitors who will compete live in the Ultimate Thanksgiving tournament, which offers a $260,000 prize pool split among its participants, on Nov. 9 and Nov. 16. It is the second live event set within the life cycle of Madden NFL 23.

This isn't Wood's first time in a live event's final eight. He's reached the live portion (the first phase of each live event is comprised of online competition) in nine previous Madden events in his career, owning a 60-18 career Madden record. But one massive void remains on his résumé: He has yet to win a belt.

Wood has come close. He's lost twice in a live event final, including via a last-second interception. He also fell short in the semifinals of another tournament he was expected to win, robbed in that case of a chance to face eventual champion Noah Johnson, better known as NoahUpNxt, the current No. 2 Madden player in the world.

"I ain't a crier, but those two right there, they hurt me," Wood said in October. "I hate losing. I like winning, but losing, that feeling right there, I hate it."

Wood now has another chance to secure a belt that has eluded him for the last four years. And he believes his time is now.

"I'm not gonna lie -- it would be the greatest feeling in the world," Wood said.

A native of Oak Hill, Florida, Wood grew up as the oldest of seven sons, surrounded by family that included his cousin, current Chicago Bears running back Darrynton Evans. His Madden persona originates from a nickname given to him by his family as a small child due to his cleft chin.

"Somehow, they changed it to Cleff, with two Fs," Wood explained. "That just stuck."

Wood's parents split up when he was young. Afterward, his father, Dwayne Wood Sr., laid the groundwork for his sons' futures on and off the football field.

Under the direction of his father, a longtime coach who currently serves as an offensive coordinator at Daytona Beach Mainland High School, Wood became deeply involved in athletics as a youth, playing football, basketball and baseball. While attending New Smyrna Beach High School, Wood shared the field with close friend and current Washington Commanders linebacker Cole Holcomb. He went on to play collegiately in the NAIA as a defensive back at Fullerton (California) College and Benedictine (Kansas) College. When he returned home after college, Wood followed in his father's footsteps as a running backs and junior varsity head coach at his alma mater.

"My dad, he kept us in sports, he kept us right. I needed that, and I didn't understand that at the time," Wood explained. "You get mad at one parent, you want to go stay with the other one. Especially because one household might have looser rules. My mom was a little bit more loose, so I wanted to go live with my mom, and he would never let that happen. I needed him in my life the way that he was."

Wood credits his father for instilling in him a competitive fire that remains visible today on the virtual gridiron. It's the first trait most anyone mentions when asked about Wood, the Madden player and the person.

"First thing I think of when I think of Cleff is competitive," said Henry Leverette, the current No. 1 Madden player in the world and a close friend of Wood. "He's probably one of the most competitive people I've ever seen in my life. Back in the day, Cleff would lose, and then he'd just start bringing up everything about you. Cleff is super competitive."

That same competitive fire led Wood back to Madden, a game he'd played growing up but had set aside while pursuing his football goals. With his on-field playing career behind him, Wood needed a new outlet and sense of identity beyond coaching high school athletes.

He found it in a familiar place: Madden. With the renewed passion for the game came a new persona: Cleff The God.

"I went on a spiritual journey, just trying to find out who I am," Wood explained. "I was like, 'Man, I feel like I'm a god. That's my self-worth.' I feel like we all are, I feel like we all got a little bit of god in us. That just stuck."

In theory, it's a natural fit: former player and current coach picks up a controller and gets a mental workout on the virtual field during his free time. Soon, though, Wood realized he might have a legitimate future playing the game competitively, perhaps for the kinds of significant sums of money that weren't available when he was an adolescent.

"Seeing how much money they were giving out, they're giving out a lot of, like, life-changing money," Wood said. "So I'm like, 'Listen, I'm gonna lock in.' "

Lock in he did, bursting onto the Madden scene as the representative of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the since-discontinued Club Championship format in 2018. He put himself on the Madden map with a thrilling showdown with Saints representative SeriousMoe that remains one of the most memorable Madden games from that era.

Wood maintained his place among the top competitors for the next four years, and after missing the Ultimate Kickoff final eight earlier this season, he's back for more.

Though he might not show it, Wood's father has been cheering him on the entire way.

"My dad's one of those people -- he's not going to necessarily tell me all the time. He wants you to work and keep going," Wood said. "We need that belt. ... He's one of them dads -- (when) he tells you that he's proud of you, it makes you emotional because you don't hear it too much. It's a lot of tough love.

"But he definitely thinks it's cool, what I'm doing. He's always supporting, always watching, always posting it on social media. It makes me proud that I've made him proud."

Wood will happily tell you he had a great year in Madden NFL 22, reaching three of the four live events in the game's tournament schedule. After that year came a new opportunity: When Madden NFL 23 arrived and the competitive calendar began with the Ultimate Kickoff Tournament, Wood found himself in front of the camera.

He is well-known in the gaming community for his boisterous and entertaining presence -- he has over 26,000 followers on Twitch and over 7,000 subscribers on YouTube, where he posts tutorial videos and full-game replays against some of the top Madden talent on the planet. Recently, EA Sports has begun welcoming him into the broadcast presentation of live events for which he doesn't qualify as a competitor.

When the Ultimate Kickoff's live tournament began on Sept. 7, Wood was mic'ed up and on camera, providing analysis for each of the seven games played. The tournament came down to a battle between the top two players in Madden: Leverette and Johnson. In what gamers would recognize as vintage Cleff form, he wore a black suit, sunglasses and his trademark diamond PlayStation controller chain.

"He has been such a pleasant addition to the booth," Madden play-by-play broadcaster Nick Mizesko told "Cleff's doing what I think everybody should aim to do. At the end of the day, you're not going to qualify for every tournament. It doesn't mean you need to quit Madden. But he didn't qualify for some tournaments, so he jumped onto an opportunity to get in the booth and share his expertise. He's never afraid to give that interview or talk about his loss. He doesn't shy away from that, and I think that's the athletics background in him. Like, listen, after a game you lose, you still gotta talk about it.

"I think that's where he's been such an invaluable addition to the booth, where he's taken this opportunity that could be looked on as a disappointment, and he's dovetailed it into a way where, listen, this guy has skills in the booth and skills on the mic. He now has something that he can go to whenever he decides to stop playing; this is something that he can go to and still make money in the game of Madden and continue to make his mark on the game. I think that's something that I don't know if other players would do -- to sit in the booth and watch the guy that beat you go out and win a belt. I think that shows the maturity and why he's really just a different breed."

Wood sees it as important to build the brand around his persona in the competitive Madden sphere.

"You have to make yourself marketable and understand that if I want to maximize myself, I gotta be a brand," Wood explained.

At 26, Wood finds himself between generations of Madden players: younger than the most seasoned competitors (affectionately nicknamed the "old heads" by younger players), but more experienced than some of the game's youngest players, including Leverette and Johnson.

Leverette said Wood has helped guide him in increasing his visibility, even helping him start his Instagram and work toward his content-creating goals. For his part, Wood believes Leverette deserves more attention than he's receiving, and is focused on helping him get there for the betterment of the Madden community as a whole.

"I talk to Henry about this all the time," Wood said of Leverette. "You have all these accomplishments. He's already solidified. You're validated. You have three belts. As long as you market yourself and make yourself a brand, the sky is the limit.

Wood feels Madden players are behind other esports players in terms of garnering sponsorship deals.

"There's no brands coming yet," Wood said. "In esports, there is, but as far as Madden, I think it's just so new, they've got some time to catch up, and we don't get all that other stuff coming to us. ... Henry, with what he's done, he should be signed somewhere. This man has won like $400,000 in the last year. He done made crazy amounts of money. He three-peated. You barely hear about that in sports."

Wood added that closing that gap is "on us as Madden players."

Wood's return to a live-event showcase coincided with a shake-up in his life: He moved from one residence to another in the same week in which he needed to win enough games in the early (double-elimination) period to reach the Ultimate Thanksgiving final eight. Despite spending most of the week packing up his belongings and, with the help of his younger brothers, moving them to his new home, Wood was still able to focus well enough to reach another live event.

Amid Wood's rise to Madden fame, he also became a father; he welcomed his son, Dwayne Wood III, into the world less than two years ago. Mizesko sees Wood's latest achievement as yet another example of what makes Wood an exceptionally mature individual in the Madden community, one who is undeterred, even when his personal life is undergoing change.

"Seeing him become not just the Madden player that he is but sort of that man that he is, it's just a combination of everything," Mizesko said. "You add in the fact he's had to play a lot of Madden games and lose a lot of Madden games ... and now he's doing it all for his son at home. It's a perfect storm of characteristics that sort of make him who he is."

Wood now plays Madden for more than just the glory of victory -- it's how he provides for his son, a full-time job that takes up a significant portion of his daily life, which he spends constantly working on his craft.

"This thing right here is as competitive as it gets," Wood said. "This is how dudes eat. This is how I eat. This is personal. This ain't just a video game. This is your life. If you've got a family, this is how you feed your family. People say, 'Oh, it's just a game.' No, it's not just a game.

"Not only that, you got people -- like me, I play for legacy. I want to win multiple belts. I want to be one of the greatest to ever do it. You watch LeBron (James) play, and his why, and why he keeps playing as long as he can play and the things that push him and why he want to win championships. Somebody like Henry, it's the same thing. Dudes want to cement a legacy for when they're done playing."

Wood said his accomplishment in reaching the final eight of the Ultimate Thanksgiving tournament was about more than satisfying his appetite for competition. It's about proving doubters -- those who see him as a commentator and not a competitor, those who might argue he's washed up after half a decade of elite performance -- that they couldn't be more wrong.

"For me, now, my legacy is winning a belt," Wood said. "Because I know once I win a belt, I will undeniably be a top five Madden Championship Series player to ever play. That's it."

As Mizesko put it, Wood is seen as a "Phil Mickelson" type, an "uber-talented player, somebody who has made a lot of top-twos, but hasn't been able to win that belt." A win in the Ultimate Thanksgiving event would change all that. Perhaps even more important to Wood, though, are the new doors a title belt would open for him, the entire Madden community and esports as a whole, which Wood believes has no visible ceiling.

"If I win a belt, I feel I can help push this sport," Wood said. "Because I'm not scared to speak, I'm not scared to show my personality, I'm not scared to show who I am. I'm not scared to show you who I am. I'm not scared to show you I'm just like you, or I'm just like an athlete. That's how I act.

"That's another motivation. I want to help grow this thing as far as I can grow it. ... The more I win, the more opportunities I can get to help grow this thing."

Belt or no belt, Madden has already had a life-changing impact on Wood, and he has no plans of slowing down any time soon.

"Dramatically, from every which way," Wood said. "Financially, socially, mentally -- I mean, I got a PS5 chain. I got a chain right here on me. I wouldn't have this just doing something else."

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