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No Play Like E-Play For Former Springbok Rugby Player

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Interest in eSports is rapidly picking up in South Africa, and Springbok player Ryan Kankowski is now fully into it, training and mentoring youngsters.

Former South African Springbok player Ryan Kankowski has displayed his prowess in the open on rugby fields around the world.

Now, inside a closed room, the October-born 32-year-old is playing a different game – and winning.

Kankowski welcomes FORBES AFRICA to the digital world of gaming at Nexus, a gaming hub situated in Randburg, northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s the rugby union player’s home from home surrounded by posters and the latest gaming memorabilia. This is where he really lets loose.

The square-shaped building we are in resembles a Tetris block, and in the center is the Nexus café.

Enthusiastic gamers rush in and out of the retail store to either purchase the latest games or just catch up on the latest gaming trends.

Kankowski, dressed comfortably in a red sweater and grey pants, orders coffee.

“Getting on the field, you feel the atmosphere. But once you are there, you don’t see what is around you. You focus on what is happening in front of you. It’s the same with eSports. You are watching on a big screen, when you do something right, the people cheer for you. You can see and feel the excitement. It makes you want to get bigger and better every year,” he says, as he sips the hot beverage.

“I once played for 20 hours non-stop. You don’t do anything in between. Once you start playing, you just don’t stop.”

Coming from a competitive contact sport such as rugby, Kankowski uses the skills he learned on the field when he is in front of a computer screen. Balance and discipline is what he takes pride in.

Kankowski, who says he is currently on a break from professional rugby, now spends his time offering mentorship to school children interested in eSports. He also trains with the Energy gaming team.

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Aware of the importance of maintaining a professional attitude, both on and off the field, Kankowski advises professional eSport players on representing their respective brands at gaming events.

eSports is a competitive online, electronic or video game played against teams or individual players. These competitions commonly take the form of organized, multi-player video games.

“Rugby had been my entire life. I played professionally for 15 years, I always loved gaming. If I wasn’t on the field, I’d probably be at home playing games. It seemed like a logical choice for me; it is a part of my life so why not go into something that is growing rapidly in South Africa,” says Kankowski.

Kankowski started his rugby career at the age of 17. He played for major teams like the Golden Lions, Cell C Sharks, and the South African national team. He traveled the world for rugby tournaments but always made time for e-gaming with teammates whenever they needed a break from the adrenaline rush on the field.

“Sports guys do play. A lot of them travel with Xboxes, PlayStations and laptops. It is a nice thing to switch off to forget about life. I have traveled for many years with my laptop. In my first year, I ended up traveling to Japan with my entire desktop. I carried it overseas with me.”

“The atmosphere is really different. In rugby, you have like over 60,000 people watching you. In South Africa, the eSports meets are not as big as it is in the rest of the world. There are close to a 1,000 people. Most of the guys you meet there are guys you’ve played against or even played with them at some stage,” he says.

He recognizes the importance of management and professionalism in all aspects of life. eSports and rugby, the two are worlds apart, but are heavily dependent on the character of the individual players.

Kankowski uses his experience as a benchmark when coaching youngsters.

Ryan Kankowski at his first virtual reality gaming experience at the Nexus gaming hub in Johannesburg. Photo by Gypseenia Lion.

“You have kids who are brilliant in sport but do not understand life. You can’t get on the stage and swear at somebody. You are representing a company. We get taught that in sports – how to handle the media, how to speak and how to navigate different spaces. There are a lot of them stuck in a room playing games, they don’t get the interaction between people. But that is changing now. The more professional the teams get, the more professional the players become. If I can bring a little bit of the rugby professionalism into eSports by showing them how the professional set up actually runs…If you are part of a team you represent something. There is a bit of professional etiquette that comes with it,” he says.

Reflecting on how much he misses his former rugby teammates, he adds: “If you don’t respect your team, they will not work with you. It doesn’t matter how good you are.

You may be the best scorer, but you will lose. You will eventually get kicked out of the team because you are just not a good player. It is about the team. They are like a family; they know everything about each other.”

Kankowski, who like his father spends most of his time gaming, enjoys playing mystery and adventure games. Amongst his favorites are PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, an online multi-player battle game and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, an action-adventure stealth video game.

So whether you are spending endless hours in front of the computer or sweating it off in the sun, the principles of sportsmanship remains the same.

Take this from a national rugby player who keeps it professional on and off the field.

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