SINGAPORE: Given the sheer number of obstacles Thomas Kopankiewicz has overcome in order to represent Singapore at the 30th SEA Games, the 23-year-old might have done well to be a hurdler rather than a gamer.
He has queued up to meet his local Member of Parliament, visited a government office thousands of kilometres away and filed a late appeal.
All this with one goal in mind - to represent Singapore at the multi-sport event which will be held in the Philippines from Nov 30 to Dec 11.
'I'M AS SINGAPOREAN AS IT GETS'
Born to a Polish father and a Chinese mother, Kopankiewicz moved to Singapore when he was four, after his mother found a job as a cellist in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
“I can speak German, I can speak Chinese – I went to two years of kindergarten in China, but I only remember those places as there are tapes," Kopankiewicz explained.
"But my first memories are in Singapore - I am as Singaporean as it gets."
As a student in Gan Eng Seng School, Kopankiewicz remembers frequenting a nearby LAN gaming shop to play DOTA with friends.
"It was a whole culture - they literally had to change rules at the LAN to cater to our school’s complaints, that was how bad it got," he said. "They started rules like you can’t go there with a uniform but it was easy for us to just bring extra shirt to school.
"Teachers actually went down after school to catch the students and were like: 'You shouldn’t be here, you should go home' …There were times that teachers would come down and kick us out, but we would go back after an hour."
For Kopankiewicz and many kids his age, gaming was a form of "escape".
He explained: "Once you’re playing, you’re so focused, and you’re so immersed in gaming and among the community of your friends that it helps you escape from everything."
But it was only after the release of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty in 2010 that Kopankiewicz found the world of competitive gaming.
"After I got to know Starcraft, I got introduced to e-sports," he said. "I was watching these tournaments, watching the communities behind it, and I got really amazed not just by the communities but by how high the skill levels are, and the different kinds of strategies that they use. I got really hooked."
Invited by a friend to a locally-organised tournament, Kopankiewicz paid ten dollars for the entry fee, and promptly beat the top player.
"We were two unknowns going in and I beat the strongest player at the time," he said. "It was kind of shocking to people and the guy had like a proper team and everything. So after the tournament, that team contacted me, and asked me if I wanted to join them."
After joining the team, Kopankiewicz was later presented with his first chance to compete in an overseas tournament after winning the Singapore qualifers. He went on to finish in the top six in the grand finals of the event held in Japan.
"You’re just very awestruck about things like – they (the organisers) are going to pay for your flight, they are going to pay for your hotel … you’re doing that playing games," he said.
"Eventually you start realizing that your friends are working part time, and you’re earning the same amount of money as they do working part time but you’re playing games. On top of that, you’re travelling the world while playing games.
"That was just mind-blowing to me."
A POST-IT OF PRIORITIES
But it wasn't all smooth-sailing for the straight-talking Kopankiewicz, then a student in Temasek Polytechnic.
"At the start of this journey, my mum was super against it – especially at that age where you and your parents already don’t really get along and you’re exploring this newfound passion," he explained. "They just really want you to do well in life, and e-sports wasn't a thing.
"She would tell me, go out, get a job, stop lazing around the home ... I told her I could earn money off of it, that was my most basic excuse. I had to prove it to her. Every time I won, it made her doubt herself."
At the same time, Kopankiewicz had to juggle gaming with studies.
"There were a lot of times in Poly(technic) where I would submit my essays two weeks earlier just so I could go for a tournament," he shared. "It’s a very hard thing to prioritise as a 17-year-old.
"I would write my priorities on a small Post-it. So I wrote – friends, gaming, school, family ... When tournaments came around, gaming went first, friends second, school third, family last. When exams came along, school first, gaming second, friends third, family last. When it was my mum’s birthday - family first."
Kopankiewicz continued to compete, representing Singapore in a number of other international tournaments which had no restrictions on citizenship. As he was a permanent resident, the youngster could compete.
Just before he enlisted in National Service (NS), Kopankiewicz decided to take a hiatus from tournaments.
"There were some personal issues and I was still spending that same amount of hours every day practicing and it didn't give me the same kind of results," he said.
"So that's not worth it any more. I was mature enough to tell myself that it was time to take a pause ... I went to venture into different forms of creative competitiveness for myself - I started a YouTube channel, I started vlogging," he added.
But Kopankiewicz couldn't stay away for too long. Towards the the end of his NS stint, he threw his hat in the ring for one last competition.
"It was a tournament where they would send all of the top eight to Australia to play in the finals ... I have video footage where in an interview there, I told them it was my last tournament," recalled Kopankiewicz, who had won the regional qualifiers.
"In the scene, a lot of people say they retire, and then after a few months you see them again."
'THE TYPICAL AMERICAN IDOL STORY'
And true enough, after reaching his operationally ready date in August last year, Kopankiewicz resumed gaming, before linking up with Southeast Asian e-sports team Resurgence.
"I thought since I have this period of downtime, why don't I go back to gaming for a while," he explained. "So I started playing again - but I was nowhere as good as I was before. Or rather - all the other players were getting better.
"Nearing the end of the year, I started spotting Resurgence's name pop up here and there," he recalled. "I was okay going solo but I knew that I wanted to represent a reputable Singapore brand."
Then came news of a game-changer - e-sports would be a medal event at the SEA Games, with six golds to be handed out in the Arena of Valor, DOTA 2, StarCraft II, Tekken 7, Hearthstone and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang events.
Kopankiewicz knew he had to be a part of it.
"Before the SEA Games was announced, this 'coming back into gaming thing' was a hobby. I didn't treat it as professionally as I did before. But, the SEA Games was different because the role I want to play in this industry is as somebody who is a consultant, to teach people who are coming into the scene.
"If I win a gold medal - no, let me correct myself - when I win the gold medal, I can tell people: these are the ways to practice, these are the ways to look at the game, this is how you can conduct healthy gaming. I wanted to be that person to be available for the industry and for that, (the) Sea Games was very important."
Despite going through the local education system, serving in the army, and even representing the nation in other international e-sports tournaments - it wouldn't be enough to compete at the SEA Games.
Kopankiewicz needed a Singaporean passport.
"It would have made sense for me to change my citizenship way before but ... my mum was very nice about it. She would have had to pay more for education and all that but she wanted me to have the choice to change it myself," Kopankiewicz explained.
"I held on to the German passport because I thought that it was a part of my own identity, even though I am not very German ... I thought that was a piece of identity that I didn't want to lose. But, when this opportunity came, its like you have to do it."
"I am going to stay here for a long time, this is home, this is where I grew up, my friends are here, my connections are here, I know how things work. I love everything about this place, other than the weather - I hate the weather."
Kopankiewicz filed his paperwork to become a citizen in January and the clock was ticking. According to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA), citizenship applications usually take six to 12 months to process.
Kopankiewicz needed his sorted in principle within six - before he participated in the local SEA Games qualifiers, held at the end of May.
Worryingly, there was no word from the ICA by April and Kopankiewicz sprung into action.
Apart from his team from Resurgence sending emails to the ICA as well as the Singapore Esports Association (SGEA) sending a support letter, Kopankiewicz went down to multiple Meet-The-People sessions to seek advice from his Member of Parliament.
"I tried not to stress myself out, so maybe once a week (I would check my application status)," he said. "Nearing the (qualifier) tournament day, I would check it every day. There's no point thinking about all these negative things, it either goes your way or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then it's God's plan that it doesn't work."
Two days before the qualifiers, he received the news that his application was approved in principle.
But that was just the first step, Kopankiewicz, who had won the qualifiers, would next need to renounce his German citizenship and get his Singapore passport by end of August.
"While I was waiting for the Citizenship Journey (stage two of getting Singapore citizenship) to be done, I met a friend who is also German, and he told me about his troubles while renouncing citizenship. And after he told me about it, then I was like: 'Oh, I need to apply for my renunciation earlier.' So I did."
On top of liaising with the German embassy in Singapore, during a trip back to visit his family in late June, Kopankiewicz visited a federal government building in Berlin to expedite the process of renunciation.
"I flew over and I talked to the German authorities there as well, but turns out it didn't help and I had to go back to Singapore to do it again. That was very frustrating ... It was a brick wall again," he said.
He said: "The thing that was really helped was the fact that my team was helping to clear a lot of this administrative stuff ... That was a big part in keeping me sane ... The feeling that you're not in it alone is very important ... You see them working hard and if you're not working hard, they are working for you, you better wake up."
One week before the second deadline, Kopankiewicz completed his renunciation and collected his Singapore passport.
But just when he thought he was out of the woods, Kopankiewicz' patience was tested on last time.
He was not selected by the Singapore National Olympic Council for the SEA Games, despite being nominated by SGEA.
SGEA submitted an appeal.
"All of this could have been for nothing," he recalled. "One month later, I was on a flight somewhere else for work trip and then right before my flight took off, I got a message that my appeal was successful.
"It's like there are a lot of hurdles, but you do what you can, my team did what they could, and now its just if this isn't the typical American Idol story, I don't know what is."
"We are glad to have the opportunity to support an excellent player like Thomas who has taken Singapore as his home since young and served in National Service," SGEA president Ng Chong Geng told CNA. "We look forward to his performance during the SEA Games and will continue to support the e-sports community and all of our athletes here."
'IF IT'S MEANT TO BE, IT WILL BE'
Kopankiewicz, who currently works as a creative producer for the YouTube channel Wahbanana, prides himself training smart for the upcoming SEA Games.
He will be among the twenty-strong contingent which will represent Singapore in six events.
"Playing and practicing a game is very different. Playing a game you just play, you have fun and do whatever you want. Practicing a game is (taking note of) a lot of details," he explained.
Kopankiewicz focuses on strategies which suit his playing style, and also picks out strategies used by top players that he tries to emulate - down to the finest detail. He clocks between two to two and a half hours of practice on weekdays and between three to four hours on weekends.
By his own admission, this might pale in comparison with some of his competitors. But Kopankiewicz remains confident.
"To sum it up, it’s to be more efficient with practice ... if you only practice specific elements, you realise your game becomes much more complete," he said. "But if you spend those two hours just playing, you have no fixed strategies going into the tournament."
All the hurdles are now all in the past for Kopankiewicz - he is nearing the home stretch and the finishing line is in sight.
"Thomas is one of the most dedicated e-sports players I have ever met. He has a long history with the game, has a huge passion and is obviously very capable," Resurgence founder Jayf Soh explained to CNA. "We're very honoured to be able to support him in all ways to ensure that he can adequately represent the country which he has served, and he has been a part of since he was very young."
"I feel very blessed that I've passed through all these hurdles, and once again for this whole opportunity," added Kopankiewicz. "If it’s meant to be, it will be. Once it is set in place, you do whatever you can do.
"It's my game to lose."