Often but not always a subset of the Shonen genre, sports anime have been around for a very long time. As such, we've had a proliferation of titles from various sports of various kinds. Titles like Ashita no Joe, Hajime no Ippo, Slam Dunk and Captain Tsubasa are iconic titles that have come to define the genre in various ways.

Their impact of sports anime on the medium is immense, and they garner a huge following and community. Just what is the special X-factor found in sports anime that makes them so gripping and particularly satisfying to follow all the way through? From the traditional to the avantgarde, the fictional and the realistic, sports anime have proven to be capable of captivating fans, whether they and many of these titles are incredibly well-received. However, we have to pick apart the sports anime phenomenon and how it has presented at different points in time to come up with a possible discernible constant that makes sports anime, particularly the great ones, as good as they can be.

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A Formula?

Due to the sheer variety in sporting codes represented in anime, it is redundant to look for a specific formula that would fit each or most examples; however, there are obvious categories that emerge when one analyses the central objective and themes of the anime in question. Sports anime are diverse, but they, like any other genre, have tropes and tendencies that can better assist our understanding of the X-factor that garners them the cult followings to which they are prone.

One of the most captivating aspects of sports anime in general is the idea that the main characters of the series are working towards a goal or ambition, be it an individual one, a collective one or some combination of the two. The journey, often from scratch, and the near-guarantee that the main characters, regardless of their skill set at the call to action, will eventually achieve their goal – no matter how unlikely it seems. There is also often a more profound barrier to their entry, a reason why their having a certain goal or ambition is a little unrealistic or even delusional.

Aoi Ashito from the currently-airing soccer anime Ao Ashi is a great example of this. Despite being in decent physical condition and even the best soccer player from his native town Ehime, Ashito begins his journey towards becoming a professional soccer player at 15 years old without even having any conception of basics the first-touch, passing, and he severely lacks what people regard a "football IQ". The titular character of Kuroko's Basketball lacks presence, and even more pressingly, Kuroko lacks basic ball-handling skills, the ability to shoot the ball, and physical stamina. Iwa Kakeru: Sport Climbing Girls had a protagonist who was a total novice; picking up climbing one day and having to participate in a competition the very next day.

The Drama

What helps sports anime become so moving is the fact that characters strive towards ambitions that aren't necessarily achievable, with the basic premise being that they actually will. This is perhaps the biggest draw to them, and other anime that make use of this trope in the context of a character's physical power (see "The Big Three"). Seeing characters overcome obstacles emboldens viewers, and it feels great, it's akin to watching a friend finally achieve a goal that they have been striving towards for the best part of 50+ episodes.

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Sports anime can be incredibly dramatic, and this element adds an interesting flavor to them. Even something silly like Keijo!!!!!!!! (Hip-Whip Girl), a sports anime where female athletes duke it out in gladiator-style contestations to knock each other off a platform into the drink below using nothing but their breasts and buttocks, carries itself in dramatic fashion which can serve as a layer of comedy in some aspects.

Pros and Cons

While on one hand, the draw comes from the insurmountable odds that the main characters of the sports anime in question face as they strive towards their goal, sometimes sports anime begins with the protagonist already proficient, or even immensely talented. In this case, they are a force to be reckoned with in their sporting code of choice; but this trope often comes secondary to the aforementioned.

Highly talented individuals in sports anime are often paired with characters who lack the technical skill but make up for it in passion and moments of brilliance. A great example of this would be Hinata and Kageyama from Haikyuu!. The two are an interesting mix of being at the beginning of their respective journeys, but where Hinata lacks in the obvious department of height; Kageyama lacks in temperament. The draw of Haikyuu! can then be seen as how the synergy between them enables them to reach the common, lofty goal that constitutes the call to action in a sports anime.

Sports anime like tend to have the protagonist's insurmountable barrier to entry supplemented by an ultra-specific aspect of the sport at which they are more proficient than anyone else. While on one hand, Chihayafuru protagonist Chihaya is brash, impatient and lacks an intimate knowledge of the poems that are integral to the sport Karuta, she has the swiftest swipe of any Karuta player her age, and she works on this aspect until it renders her flaws moot.

To take it away from sport anime and situate the conversation in Shounen anime in general, this dynamic of sport anime is the niche application of the basic idea that any configuration has its obvious advantages and drawbacks; however, the application in sports anime enables a character's most damning flaw to become a trusty weapon if they hone it right.

The Right Catalyst

"Catalyst" is to be understood in a very loose sense. Every sports anime requires a central conflict or point of contention to bring everything all together. Anime like Haikyuu! make this character-driven, with each character in the series facing a problem of their own which then influences their play style, temperament, and chemistry with other members on the team. This is also true of works like Free! and SK8 – The Infinity, where a character's relationship to a sporting code is the centre of the story with everything else building around it. In SK8, Langa's skills from his snowboarding carry into his skateboarding; however, he only skates because snowboarding was something he'd do with his deceased father. On the other hand, the other main character, Reki, is forced to reckon with his passion for skating when he sees a "beginner" like Langa overtake him and become one of the most prolific skaters he's ever seen.

While each show has something that makes it remarkably different from the next, some of the best sports anime have some kind of variation of the themes and tropes above. While the execution of said tropes is important; their presence in the framework of a sports anime title tends to lead to that anime garnering a lot of attention and acclaim. While by no means exhaustive as the medium continues to morph and change, some of the elements that make up the best sports anime are a combination of drama, a worthy call to action, character-driven story as well as complex dynamics and themes that exist to link the characters to each other and to the sport upon which the entire series is built. Ultimately, some of the best sports anime are the ones that can inspire passion in a viewer, and also indicate similar levels of respect and reverence for not only the sporting code; but the characters in the series as well.

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