The world of sports has come to a halt due to the worrying COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe right now. Leagues are suspended, arenas are empty and championships are unclaimed (sorry, Liverpool fans). But beyond the emotional toll to the athletes, and the economic costs to teams and organizations – socially-distanced fans are also left feeling empty without the thrills and anguish that only live sports can provide.
So if you’re looking to fill that void, we’re here to recommend some of the most dynamic and dramatic sports anime you can binge, while you wait for the real deal to resume. Sure, there are plenty of great live-action sports series too (from fictional shows like Friday Night Lights, to non-fictional documentaries like Cheer) – but for our money, there’s nothing beats the excitement and investment of a well-crafted sports anime.
A classic from the mid-1990s, Slam Dunk is the granddaddy of the absurdly popular basketball anime subgenre. This series follows the tale of delinquent Hanamichi Sakuragi, who joins his high school team to impress a girl and discovers his passion for the game, becoming a better person along the way. Putting together a team of misfits and outcasts, he brings his school to the top of the league. In many ways, the fast-paced and dynamic ebb and flow of basketball is perfect for anime, and Slam Dunk was the first to bottle that court drama into a winning formula.
This is probably the best sports anime of the modern era. Haikyuu! follows the story of Hinata Shouyo, who falls in love with volleyball after stumbling on a championship match on TV. After a rough introduction to the sport, the series begins in earnest when Hinata finds himself on the same high school team as his bitter rival Kageyama. Besides featuring high-energy action and a great soundtrack, the real strength of Haikyuu!! is its deep character development. Featuring a rich supporting cast, you won’t just be invested in wins and losses, but also their relationships.
Ping Pong The Animation
Based on a manga series by the quirky Taiyo Matsumoto, Ping Pong The Animation offers the most unique animation on this list thanks to faithful preservation of Matsumoto’s unusual character designs, love for Dutch angles and weird framing. The series follows childhood friends Peco and Smile, who are different in every way, except for their passion for table tennis. Hailed for its naturalistic dialogue and nuanced take of the joy and burden of talent, Ping Pong isn’t just focused on the table – but also on the growth, struggles and lives of its fleshed-out characters.
Yuri!!! On Ice
Arguably the greatest sports anime of all-time (and one of the best anime in general), Yuri!!! On Ice is a beautiful and resonant story of mentorship and romance set in the world of competitive figure skating. The series revolves around Yuri Katsuki, who is reeling after he suffers the worst loss of his career. Things change when his idol, Victor Nikiforov, offers to coach him. While the animation of the skating scenes are genuinely breathtaking, the series is built upon the delicate love story between these two men, using skating as the physical expression of their emotions.
Ace Of Diamond
Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan, which explains why there are dozens upon dozens of anime series about it. And despite the saturation of the subgenre, few are as robust as Ace of Diamond. We follow pitcher Eijun Sawamura, who was the top player on his small high school team. But when he transfers to the prestigious Seidou High School, he discovers that he was a big fish in a small pond. With shonen-esque animation driving the on-field action, and the complex interpersonal relationships, you’ll be engrossed in this team’s ups and downs.
Lots of anime center around fighting, but rarely are done in a real sporting context. Hajime-no Ippo introduces us to Ippo Makunouchi, a gentle high schooler who is frequently bullied. That is until he is befriended by a professional boxer, who tries to instill a sense of self-confidence in Ippo by training him in the sweet science. The anime then follows Ippo’s burgeoning boxing career, as he grows into a legitimate prospect in the ring. Featuring growth, grit, and spectacular action, this anime is also acclaimed for its ability to add dimension to Ippo’s opponents as well.
The Prince of Tennis
Based on a wildly popular manga, The Prince of Tennis follows prodigy Ryoma Echizen as he tries to come out of his pro father’s legendary shadow and develop his own style of tennis. The anime delivers a striking, hyperkinetic take on the game, with plenty of trick shots and special techniques on display – but the real draw is Ryoma’s growth as a character and his relationships with teammates, coaches and rivals. Regarded as the sports anime that kicked off the genre’s boom in the 2000s, The Prince of Tennis is one of the most exciting sports anime on this list.
Within the kinetic and breathless badminton match in its opening five minutes – Hanebado! announces itself as the latest in the long line of great sports anime. Everything about this 2018 series is stunning. It’s animation is fluid and incredibly detailed, its sound design is evocative and intense, and the emotional arcs of it’s female protagonists are immensely compelling. Filled with tension, rivalries and tragic backstories, every single character here fully fleshed out. Plus, this show does a damn good job at making badminton look like the most badass sport on Earth.
One of the most enduringly popular sports anime of all-time, Captain Tsubasa is a series focused on football (or soccer to you Yanks) that first premiered in 1983. The anime charts young Tsubasa Oozora’s growth as he becomes the captain of the Japanese youth team. Despite being a prodigious striker who can single-handedly win matches, Tsubasa values teamwork above all. This anime is hailed for inspiring generations of football players in Japan and around the world, including Lionel Messi who used to watch the Spanish dubbed version.
From football to American football, Eyeshield 21 is unique for being the only anime to be centered around the sport. Following Sena Kobayakawa as he starts at Deimon Private Senior High School, the fast and agile kid is recruited into the school’s American football program when his speed and evasion skills are noticed during a tussle with bullies. From there the wimpy boy develops into one of the country’s best quarterbacks, helping turn a rag-tag team of weirdos into a championship team. Comedic, exciting and extremely physical – Eyeshield 21 is a must-watch.
Unlike other auto-racing anime which focus on illegal drag racing, Capeta teaches us to get into motorsports the right way. We begin with 10-year-old Kappeita Taira as he struggles to cope with his mother’s passing. To cheer him up, his father builds him a go-kart out of scrap material. In Kappeita’s very first race, he nearly overtakes a famous young champion through sheer talent, thus awakening his passion. Balancing high-octane speed with a beautiful father-son story, Capeta’s long journey keeps us invested all the way to Kappeita’s rise in Formula One.
Run With The Wind
Based on the sport of running, Run With The Wind focuses principally on two young college students – Kakeru, a freshman who’s sworn off competitive running, and Haiji, a senior determined to achieve glory. Seeking to win a grueling team-based, 10-part relay called the Hakoden, Haiji resorts to enlisting his nine dorm mates – vowing to turn this unfit bunch into a group of champions. This character-driven series does a wonderful job of fleshing-out the personal journeys of these 10 runners through compelling conversations and sporting struggles.
Yowamushi Pedal is a positively feel-good sports anime featuring the rare protagonist who is neither disillusioned with the sport, nor striving to be the very best. We follow Sakamichi Onoda, an otaku looking to make new friends by joining his school’s bicycle racing club (the anime club unfortunately disbanded). Despite possessing a natural talent for cycling, Onada’s attitude shows us that there’s more to sports than simply accolades and glory – it’s true spirit is all about fostering a sense of community through a shared passion, and creating meaningful new bonds.
If Slam Dunk is the Michael Jordan of basketball anime, Kuroko no Basket is the Lebron James. Highly regarded as one of the best sports animes of the last decade, this series follows the legends of Teiko Middle School’s basketball team. Known as the “Generation of Miracles”, each starter has since gone on to different high schools – including their “sixth man” Kuroko Tetsuya – who now leads unheralded Seirin High against his former teammates. Filled with impossible action and god-like skill, this jaw-dropping anime is a guaranteed adrenaline rush.
Considering its popularity in Japan, we had to include at least one other great baseball anime in this list. Following the challenging life of Goro Honda, a talented pitcher devastated by the death of parents at a young age, a terrible arm injury, and plenty of hardship. Despite all those strikes, this inspiring story shows that Goro is never deterred from his baseball dreams. We see his local Little League team and, over the course of the series, work his way up to the majors. An inspiring anime about the value of perseverance and friendship, Major is a dramatic home run.