Sports fiction is full of time-tested repertoires of tropes, and sports anime is no exception. Some tropes include the underdog team trying to beat the professionals, while others see the rival team as being egotistical or cheating. Similarly, several other tropes pertaining to team spirit and cooperation have become synonymous with the genre with the rise of Haikyuu!!, Free!, etc.
However, with the 2022 FIFA World Cup, sports anime such as Blue Lock and Ao Ashi gained a lot of popularity for breaking the traditional tropes. While the former tends to emphasize personal growth and breaking out of certain selfish mindsets associated with sporting competitions, the latter series upholds the spirit of teamwork and growth through competition.
Tropes aren't necessarily bad and can be amazing when a sports anime breaks the traditionality associated with it. To that end, this article will list off five such sports anime that follow all (or most) of the tropes associated with the genre and five others that subvert them.
Disclaimer: The following article will contain spoilers for the various sports anime and likewise reflect the author's opinion.
Kuroko's Basketball and 4 other sports anime that follow all the tropes to a T
1) Captain Tsubasa
Captain Tsubasa is one of the most well-known anime featuring soccer and inspired many talented players to give the sport a professional career. Such players include Alessandro del Piero, Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti, and Fernando Torres.
Moreover, the explosive popularity of Captain Tsubasa led to the Japanese Soccer Association assisting anime's development and promoting soccer heavily in Japan, inspiring professional players like Hidetoshi Nakata and Seigo Narazaki.
Similar to Dragon Ball, the main series started the manga/anime popularity boom in Europe and South America during the late '80s and early '90s. It was rather influential, creating many of the tropes that sports anime follow today, such as the underdog team, an arrogant player, or cheating rival teams.
Arguably the most famous volleyball anime, Haikyuu!! tends to pull every sports anime trope one can think of. An underdeveloped/underdog protagonist? Check. Rivals having to come together on the same team? Check. An obscure school team led by a really underhanded captain? Check.
Despite following many of the tropes set forth by Captain Tsubasa and others on this part of the list, most fans of Haikyuu!! don't care about that. The fact that it's fundamentally unoriginal is not a bad thing in the slightest, as the character developments and actions are still breathtaking to behold.
3) Kuroko's Basketball
The phrase "Embrace unreality" seems to be the modus operandi for Kuroko's Basketball. The show's high school characters exhibit almost supernatural strength and endurance when on the basketball court. The members are all often shown annihilating their opponents with supernatural moves as if this were Dragon Ball featuring basketball.
Kuroko's Basketball makes all the sports anime clichés work by indulging in shonen battle tropes. Sure, it may not be original in any sense, but when's the last time any kind of shonen battle fan complained about originality in a work? The characters work, the action is fun, and the animation is fluid.
4) Attack No. 1
Back in 1969, the classic volleyball anime Attack No.1 pioneered many of the popular sports anime tropes that are still used today. It was the first female sports anime series in the shojo category and is credited with being the foundation of the same. The series helped push an older female fandom into the mainstream, breaking the idea that successful anime and manga could only focus on boys.
It also capitalized on the boom of the gold medal-winning Japanese women's volleyball team at the 1964 Olympics and inspired many to pick up the sport. Although it's formulaic by today's standards, it was revolutionary back in the day by focusing on a girl's dreams of success in volleyball.
Baseball is considered one of Japan's most beloved sports. Big Windup!, H2, Cross Game, and Ace of Diamond are just a few popular shows in this subgenre of sports anime. As a franchise, Major perfects every sports cliché to create its own endearing story of hard-fought victories and hardships that the teams go through.
From horrific coaches and sponsors to cheating rival teams and officials, Major leans into those aspects with the character Goro Honda. It's a story from kindergarten to the professional leagues, filled with every bit of sports drama one can imagine. It even goes into people dying from baseballs hitting them!
Yuri!!! On ICE, Prince of Tennis, and 3 other series that defy the traditionality of sports anime tropes
1) Blue Lock
All that stuff about teamwork making the dream work? Blue Lock basically kicks that off the field. This anime's first call to players is to be selfish, egotistical, and generally put yourself above your team. If nothing else, it works at seeing the other side of a sports story wherein audiences follow a rival team instead of an underdog team.
As Blue Lock centers around football, it still expects teamwork from the players at the end of the day. However, it's also about making the characters find their own strength. In other words, not everyone can be a striker, score goals, and win the game by themselves. It's just a matter of finding a character's own place and role while making sure that their egos are on full display.
2) Ao Ashi
Want a total opposite of Blue Lock that also emphasizes selfishness above teamwork? Ao Ashi is a similar soccer anime, but takes a different approach to its deconstructive elements. Whereas Blue Lock focuses heavily on the individual side of things and emphasizes the finding one's place aspect, Ao Ashi focuses on how hard it is to be a professional athlete.
Injuries, mental stress and physical fatigue that take a huge toll on players, trainers, and even manipulative coaches and trainers are all on display here. Interestingly, most sports anime don't start with a protagonist like Ashito Ashi, who is an arrogant teen at the start of the series but slowly warms up to the team in due time.
3) Yuri!!! On ICE
Even a slower paced sports anime like Yuri On Ice can subvert several traditional tropes and deconstruct more than a few things about sports. For one thing, it tackles many of the perils of figure skating and being a queer person in a country that has limitations on LGBTQ+ rights. The story of 23-year-old Yuri gets into issues of performance anxiety and age, as 23 borders on being "too old" for ice skating.
Additionally, the romance between Yuri and his mentor, Victor, i.e., two men, is an unexplored territory in the sports anime genre. The series also confronts the Japanese government’s stance on gay marriage through a maturely handled relationship. The two eventually got engaged, but in Barcelona. Moreover, the relationship between the two men sparked a ton of controversial discussions, considering that's not the norm in sports anime.
4) Prince of Tennis
The explosion in popularity of sports anime in the early 2000s can be traced back to Prince of Tennis. While rather cliche on the surface, this sports anime highlights the flaws that can come with obsession and perfectionism. This is best shown by 12-year-old tennis prodigy Ryoma Echizen, whose whole life revolves entirely around tennis.
This deconstruction comes in the form of showing what the obsession with a sport can cost elsewhere in life. In Ryoma's case, it's a true lack of hobbies, interests outside tennis, and real friends. Ryoma likewise struggles remember people’s names and faces, even if they're friendly toward him. However, he gets better as the series goes on and even slowly becomes less of an arrogant jerk than how he started.
Boxing in sports anime has many to choose from: whether it's the classic boxing series Tomorrow’s Joe or the much better known Hajime no Ippo. However, MegaloBox decided to try something a little different. First of all, the setting is a class system with a huge wealth divide. The protagonist, Junk Dog, is forced to compete for survival in fixed fights in a slum to survive. Basically, it's underground fights from a fighters' point-of-view instead of someone passing through.
The resulting story is a deep, dark, and bleak-looking struggle of chronic pain, financial hardship, and even identity forgery. All this to compete with the richer professionals in an exoskeletal version of boxing to guarantee a better life. Suffice to say, sports anime often don't go that hard when it comes to their sports or protagonists.