By Keith Reid-Cleveland
Overcoming insurmountable odds. Rivalries that last a lifetime. Fighting for progress, inch by inch. These are all common tropes you’ll find in sports and in anime.
At first glance, the two might appear to be worlds apart. In reality, they’re closer than you think.
For example, they’re both at the center of billion-dollar industries, have deeply passionate fan bases that span the entire globe, and continue to evolve as time goes on, iterating and expanding to keep audiences entertained.
And there’s a beautiful intersection between the two as a genre loved by many: sports anime.
Sports anime has something for everyone.
For anime fans who never quite took a liking to sports, these series provide insight into what it’s like to spend years on the field or on the court. You learn the game’s rules — both basic and complex — and gain a newfound respect for the camaraderie of the players.
Before watching baseball anime Big Windup!, I would groan about how boring the sport was to watch. It moved too slowly, especially in between plays. But thanks to this show, I understood how these sluggish moments really equated to opportunity and precise on-field adjustments. They were about communication and strategy.
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By the end of the show, I felt like I could actually go outside and throw a slider if you paid me enough to do it. (Now, whether or not that’s actually the case is an entirely different discussion.)
On the flipside, sports fans can find plenty to love in these series, as well. They can further validate an existing interest in sports or even provide more context into a certain sport. The accuracy of the shows’ descriptions and coaching moments is enough to make any hardcore fan applaud creators for clearly doing their homework.
For example, I likely never would’ve learned the rules of rugby or figure skating if not for ALL OUT!! or Yuri!! on ICE. But each episode of shows like this serves up another lesson about the sport that builds upon what you’ve learned in previous episodes. Now I understand the significance of the title “Yokozuna” and how cutthroat the world of figure skating can truly be.
Anime protagonists are often characters who have to overcome major obstacles through grit and determination, no matter if they’re born with talent or have none at all. That includes both prodigies and benchwarmers. If you think about it, this mentality lends itself perfectly to the competitive nature of sports.
Consider how many stories you’ve heard over the years about athletes who were late bloomers that beat the odds to make it all the way to the pros, or a special team that captured lightning in a bottle for that once-in-a-lifetime run.
Now, imagine getting to follow that athlete or team from the very beginning of their journey, before anyone knew how far they’d go, and bear witness to their moment of glory after they finally make the shot/cross the finish line/win the match.
That’s what watching a good sports anime from the start feels like.
Take Haikyu!!, a series that follows a formerly-underperforming volleyball team as it competes to retain its long-gone glory of the past.
When the series starts, main characters Shoyo Hinata and Tobio Kageyama aren’t even in high school yet, they’re actually competing against each other in a junior high tournament and spark a fiery rivalry. That is, until they end up enrolled at the same high school the next year and are forced to learn to play together.
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From their very first practice, each episode serves as an opportunity for them — and their teammates — to hone their skills and reach new heights. Each victory, whether it be them winning a game or just winning a set in a practice match, feels like a true accomplishment, because we’ve been there to see all of their growth to this point.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of watching sports anime, however, is how it can serve as an unlimited source of inspiration for whatever you’re facing in life. The stories at the center of anime and sports work well because they’re relatable to the most common of human experiences — persevering despite the odds.
Sure, on the surface, Hinomaru Sumo may be about main character Hinomaru fighting against being an undersized sumo wrestler with dreams bigger than his opponents’ gigantic statures, but he’s also learning to embrace his flaws and push past his limits so that he can reach his goals.
Whether you’re a fan of sports, anime, both or neither, there’s a compelling hook for you. Sports anime largely speak to a shared human experience that we can all relate to on the most basic level. Perhaps more than any other genre in anime.
For example, Stars Align goes to great lengths to show viewers just how talented tennis players are — even at an amateur level. But showcasing the relationships between characters, the trials of their often-chaotic personal lives and the escape they find in the game are all major factors in what makes the series so appealing.
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Watching an anime like this can even connect you with kindred spirits as you see yourselves in the players on-screen, whether or not you’ve ever held a tennis racket.
By highlighting the complexities of emotions and relationships, sports anime speak a universal language. At their core, these shows are much more about the character’s interactions with the world around them than the sports they’re taking part in. If anything, the sports are more of a vehicle to help the characters navigate through life’s ups and downs.
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