Sports anime isn't always everyone's cup of tea. Stereotypical sports anime series like Slam Dunk, Kuroko's Basketball, or Haikyuu!! may not appeal to those who don't enjoy jargon-heavy commentaries. Similarly, such viewers wouldn't be particularly invested in the characters' almost fanatical passion for their specific sport.
But it would be a mistake to assume there aren't any sports-related anime series that non sports-anime lovers can watch and enjoy. So, this is a list of series with sports elements, but different in a way that appeals to lovers of other genres as well.
Anime series that transcend the sports genre
1) Sk8 the Infinity
The biggest difference between Sk8 the Infinity and other sports anime is that despite keeping every trope of the sports genre, it subscribes to none of them. Revolving around Reki, Langa and their shared passion for skateboarding, the anime introduces grunge/punk aesthetic.
Added to this is the hippie-esque atmosphere of a seaside town in Okinawa, all complimented by some vibrant animation.
Tournaments here are illegal, underground events, with few rules and fewer morals dictating the scene. It's just flashy tricks and wins down risky trails that score you points in Sk8.
If it is the highly regulated structure of high-school sports and inter-school tournaments that puts you off sports anime, this one will be right up your alley. The series has one season consisting of 12 episodes.
2) Yuri!!! on Ice
Yuri!!! on Ice would be more appropriate for an audience of 18+ and above. The anime focuses on a Japanese figure-skater nearing his mid-twenties, Yuri Katsuki, trying to win gold at the Grand Prix finals with the help of his idol and coach, Victor Nikiforov.
Unlike sports like basketball, football or volleyball, figure-skating is considered feminine and often, only grudgingly accepted into the genre of 'sports'.
Yuri!!! on Ice beautifully depicts both the artistic aspects of the sport along with the rigorous training that is required for its execution. Though heavier in jargon regarding figure skating techniques, the performances in this sports anime are a delight to watch. Coupled with the thematic and emotional context of the story, the series is a satisfying experience.
Yuri!!! on Ice has one season with 12 episodes, and a spin-off film focusing on Victor, first announced in 2019 but with no updates since 2020.
In a nutshell, Free! is a swimming anime with lots of pretty boys. The series is big on fan-service, but this does not negate its story. Whereas most mainstream sports anime are competitive and motivated about winning competitions, at its core, Free! is more about finding connections with old friends.
The tournament arcs in the series appear much later, and it is only in the third season of the series that most of the swimmers become heavily invested in winning. The art style is enthralling, and the storyline has several heartfelt moments to cater to lovers of shoujo or slice-of-life anime.
The final part of the series is explored in a set of two movies premiering in Japan in October 2021 and April 2022 respectively.
4) March Comes In Like a Lion
Speaking of slice-of-life anime, March Comes in Like a Lion is a coming-of-age anime disguised as a slice-of-life series, which is again presented as a sports anime. The series follows Rei Kiriyama, a high school student who is a professional shogi player, living alone off his earnings from winning shogi matches.
The story extends to the lives of three sisters who welcome him into their home and lives, along with Rei's love-hate relationship with his adoptive sister. Rei meets several other characters on his journey to balancing his life and shogi, all of them making an impact on him.
March Comes in Like a Lion deals with themes of depression, bullying, loneliness and alienation over a span of two seasons, with shogi as an essential element of Rei's life. The art style is eccentric and awe-inspiring, beautifully depicting the emotional range of the show.
5) Run With the Wind
Another sports anime with slice-of-life elements, Run With the Wind begins with two dedicated runners and a house full of oddball university students who are roped into forming a team for the Hakone Ekiden, a marathon up-and-down the Hakone mountains.
This sports anime explores the stories of all these characters, but especially focuses on Haiji and Kakeru. During this journey, bonds are made while its conclusion comes with a cathartic joy and relief.
As the climax of the anime and the marathon itself approaches, even the viewers seem to breathe a sigh of relief. Focusing more on the mental and emotional landscapes of its protagonists, Run With the Wind spans one season with 23 episodes.
Tsurune is a sports anime about kyudo, which is traditional Japanese archery. It follows the trope of a high-school team competing in inter-school tournaments. What makes the series stand out is its incorporation of the symbolism associated with kyudo along with the metaphors tethered to the various positions of the members in a kyudo formation.
Focusing on the concept of 'target panic' along with other more relatable issues such as self-worth, guilt and nostalgia, Tsurune is oddly poetic. The title itself is an onomatopoeia dedicated to the sound created by an arrow during a perfectly fired shot.
The series spans one season with 13 episodes. However, a new Tsurune movie was confirmed in 2020 with a release date in 2022.
When one thinks of sports anime, card games aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. Chihayafuru is another sports anime focusing on traditional Japanese sports like shogi and kyudo. However, the emphasis is on a Japanese card game called ‘karuta’.
Though it's a sports anime, it still falls within the radar of the josei demographic. This is because while dealing with Chihaya Ayase's desire to become the best karuta player in the country, the anime also depicts themes like self-discovery, passion, and of course, some romance.
Chihayafuru has aired for 3 seasons, with around 25 episodes each season.
Sports anime in recent times have started branching into more underrated events such as rhythmic gymnastics. Another sport considered more of a feminine event, Backflip!! works against gender stereotypes and prejudice that men’s rhythmic gymnastics face in the world of traditional sports anime.
The series has a slight Haikyuu!!-esque vibe in terms of its protagonist, coaches, and character relationships. The series is at times also reminiscent of shows like Kono Oto Tomare and Mashiro no Oto.
The anime aired in 2021 for one season spanning 12 episodes. A new Backflip!! movie is set for a spring 2022 premiere.
9) Gymnastics Samurai
Gymnastics seemed to be in vogue in 2020-2021, with the Tokyo Olympics looming ahead. This list itself has mentioned two anime based on this sport. Having said that, Gymnastics Samurai is distinctly different from Backflip!! The former depicts the life of a professional Olympian athlete in a slump, not a high-school student aspiring to become a nation-level champion.
Depicting the perspective of an older protagonist with a daughter who is contemplating retirement from his competitive career, the show offers a fresh take on the life and motivations of an established athlete.
Featuring a large cast of quirky characters, Gymnastics Samurai is a must watch for people who have enjoyed watching sports anime series like Yuri!!! On Ice, Tsurune and Run with the Wind.
Gymnastics Samurai aired for one season in 2020, for 11 episodes.
The genre of sports anime often incorporates tropes from several different genres such as shonen action, romance, as well as slice-of-life, creating something unique.
In recent times, the genre has also started expanding, incorporating sports like volleyball, golf, and even featuring strategic board games such as shogi. The genre is no longer limited to the staples of baseball, soccer or basketball.