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One-on-one with Thomas Kopankiewicz, SEA Games Esports Silver Medallist: A Fairy Tale Without An Ending

By now, you would have heard of Thomas Kopankiewicz, his arduous journey of procuring a Singaporean passport, and his stellar achievement at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games). The 24-year-old scriptwriter at Wah!Banana, who recently clinched the nation’s maiden silver medal in StarCraft II at the SEA Games, however, wasn’t all that impressed.  

“It was a fairy tale without an ending,” he tells me, referring to a contentious headline that a journalist had quoted him on that drew some flak on social media. “I didn’t get gold. It’s that simple.”

Photo Credit: Thomas Kopankiewicz by Mark Cheong for The Straits Times

Born to a Polish father and a Chinese mother, Thomas has called our sunny shore home since he was four and Singapore was where he grew up and studied at. Despite sporting brownish-blonde hair and bearing the facial features of someone of European descent, he speaks without an accent, is fluent in Chinese (and Singlish), and like any Singaporean son, had gone through the rite of national service.

Growing up, Kopankiewicz pursued simple pleasures. He plays basketball in the neighbourhood’s basketball courts and frequents lan gaming shops. He is a heartland child who loves gaming with his friends and perhaps even once fantasized of playing on a grander scale beyond the confines of an intra-lan tournament.   

But Kopankiewicz couldn’t have known it back then. Being a professional esports player in Singapore was an impossible dream, was it not?

Photo Credit: Thomas’ Facebook

Ler Jun: How would you describe what you do to someone you are meeting for the first time?

Thomas Kopankiewicz: I guess what I do full-time is to entertain people and provide influence on new media platforms. On the side, while people work part-time jobs, I play games. It so happens that I manage to play at a level where I can earn more financial keep than just doing a part-time gig. There’s also the opportunity to go overseas too.

L: You recently represented Singapore at the biennial SEA Games. I guess this is like a gamer boy’s dream come true.

T: I think the whole process has been crazy, troublesome, and difficult. There were a lot of hurdles to overcome. When it ended, it was more of a relief because all the efforts that the team and I put in didn’t go to waste. In retrospect, I am honoured to be able to represent Singapore at the SEA Games. I’ve been through so many other overseas competitions and I’ve always been the only Singaporean there. This time though, many Singaporean representatives joined me on an official and more internationally recognised stage. More importantly, the game is being broadcast on mainstream media which helps provide a different perspective on esports and gaming.

L: But how did you really feel after winning silver for the nation?

T: Very sad. I’m always a ‘Go for Gold’ kind of guy. Me winning silver is almost equivalent to me losing in the group stages of any other competitions. I was very demoralised and disappointed that I couldn’t perform and finish well enough. It was a fairy tale without an ending. I didn’t get gold. It’s that simple.

But, it’s also kind of true that Caviar Acampado played a very good game. I’ve never seen him perform so well in finals before. He has improved during the years I wasn’t playing. But I felt much better when I turned on my phone and saw how many of my friends were watching the games and supporting me

Photo Credit: Resurgence

L: What was the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in your journey to the SEA Games that no one knows about?

T: There were two huge sacrifices. The first is giving up my German passport, which I think everyone already knows. The second, however, was how I spent $1,200 to buy eight days of leave from work just so I could practice more. I work in a small company and we have this funny policy that if I run out of leaves, I can buy leaves from my colleagues.

It just so happens that I have one colleague who barely used his leaves last year, so I bought eight days from him. I just want to take this opportunity to thank him: Jason from Wah!Banana, thanks, man!

L: You grew up in a Singapore that holds conservative views on esports. I’m sure your journey throughout the years wasn’t just a bed of roses. What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

T: My parents—my mom and stepdad—were not at all supportive. They were very against it at the start. It was during my teenage years, where I’d want to go against my parents and rebel. At the same time, gaming full-time in Singapore was unheard of because of the emphasis on the university paper race. The education system is also very hectic and it’s really difficult to practice at the same level as other countries. One of the biggest difficulties was me trying to balance school, gaming and friends.

There were a lot of sacrifices along the way too. If a tournament is coming up, I wouldn’t hang out with friends. On the flip side, If I had exams, I would focus on submitting assignments, revising, and gaming would have to wait.

I suppose gaming is an extension of that mantra of doing things differently.

L: What was your childhood like growing up? And how has that affected the decisions you made today?

T: I think it’s quite interesting. My parents are divorced, and I live in Singapore with my mum and stepdad. Occasionally, I’d go back to Germany, where I’d play PC games with my biological dad and brother. And that was how we spent time then. I think the time spent in Germany gave me some influence on me liking games.

But growing up, my brother, Jan Kopankiewicz, was one of the biggest influences as a kid. He was very cynical and realistic. Imagine a 10-year-old telling an 8-year-old things like, “Don’t believe anything out there”, “Always form your perspectives and ideas”, “Doubt everything”, or “Go out and always do something different”.  

I always had this kind of influence and because of that, I am always trying to do things differently. Which is why I’m in the YouTube industry and not in a proper production house. I suppose gaming is an extension of that mantra of doing things differently. 

L: Was gaming one of the big ambitions you had while growing up?

T: Definitely! In the past, I enjoyed playing casually and watching competitions with my friends. I was introduced to StarCraft II by my friends when it first released and I took a liking to it. I started practising and I just wanted to get better. When I did, I started to play in local and overseas tournaments. I have always tried to do better in my games, but I have never thought of going full-time; my parents wanted me to take on something stable as a job and gaming wasn’t exactly a stable occupation.

Photo Credit: Lysander Xonora

L: I’m sure at one point you had to decide to play competitively, even if it’s a side-line gig. What was the worst criticism you have heard from making this decision?

T: My parents might have given me the most criticisms, like how gaming is a waste of time or how I should be doing something proper. I never had any kind of hate directed to me for trying something I love. But I guess if you show real passion into doing something and are serious about it, people can see that, and nobody will make fun of you.

Truth to be told, if you’re not the top 1 or 2 in Singapore, you don’t even need to imagine making any money.

L: It’s 2020 and the perspectives on esports have most definitely evolved. What’s your opinion on the sudden acceptance of e-sports or competitive gaming in Singapore?

T: I don’t think it is a sudden acceptance; it’s built with time and the collective efforts from the community. Back when a couple of veterans and I first started playing, I reckon we were the ones who helped path the way and bring new light to the scene.

Today, we see Singapore hosting many foreign tournaments, and it’s been rather well-received. That said, it is not exactly the best, but it is not too bad either. After all, getting passive Singaporeans to patronise an event is extremely difficult and somehow we overcame that. If anything, I see esports at the SEA Games as a reflection of how more countries are embracing the changes and demands in the technological age.

Conventional sports (like track and field, swimming, gymnastics) were once just games back in the past. It takes huge pools of people enjoying these games for communities to start forming, and a demand to see the best players to compete would surface thereafter. And that’s why we have all these gaming competitions today.

Photo Credit: Umehara Keiji

L: What advice would you give to someone who’s considering a career in esports?

T: When it comes to professional gaming or competitive gaming, what people usually see on stage are glimpses of the whole deal. It may seem glorious on stage at first glance, but there are a lot of sacrifices and the practices are insane. Truth to be told, if you’re not the top 1 or 2 in Singapore, you don’t even need to imagine making any money.

Being top in Singapore is nothing. Nothing at all. You need to be consistent, just as how I was consistently the top two in Southeast Asia. You need to be of a level where you can compete internationally, or there’s no point in even trying.

Photo Credit: Umehara Keiji

L: 2019 has been a hectic year for you. Looking back, what are you most grateful for?

T: My team, Resurgence. They are the ones who have been proactive in helping me get my citizenship checked out and motivating me throughout. Of course, my girlfriend, Adelle, and my best friend, Keiji, too. Both of them flew down to Manila to support me. I doubt I would have that kind of composure on the big day if I didn’t have them there.

You can’t do this journey without support. Even though StarCraft II is a 1-v-1 game where you can just focus on yourself and practice on your own, having big ambition alone can’t get you far. I’m blessed to have these people around me.

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