Captain Tsubasa to Wave!!: The Rise of Sports Anime

Anime encompasses a number of genres such as romance, horror, fantasy, slice of life, adventure, and sports. Recently, the sports anime genre has focused less on popular sports such as basketball or baseball. Instead, newer anime has focused more on less popular sports like running, biking, and even surfing.

Anime has long been a part of Japanese culture. In fact, the very first animated film was released in the 1910s and was just less than five minutes long. However, the first sports anime didn’t exist until 1931, called Our Baseball Match (Oira no Yakyuu). A 9-minute film about a baseball game between rabbits and tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog). Another film released in the 1930s was Mabo’s Big Race which was about a boy participating in the Olympic Games.

Image Credit: MyAnimeList

By the late 60s to early 70s, the genre started appearing more as anime began airing on TVs. Some notable sports anime during that time was Speed Racer (1967), Tiger Mask (1969), and Ashita no Joe (1970). However, it was only in the 1980s, the golden age of anime, was the genre classified as “sports anime”. It was through the debut of Captain Tsubasa (1983), a soccer anime about teamwork and friendship. It successfully gained popularity worldwide and was probably be the reason for soccer’s popularity in Japan and in other countries as well.

Popular Sports Anime

Image Credit: MyAnimeList

Since then, several anime series have been created with stories that focused on sports. One notable example, and a classic in sports anime, is Slam Dunk (1993). If Captain Tsubasa popularized soccer, Slam Dunk popularized basketball. It is arguably one of the best sports anime for basketball, despite having a much more modern basketball anime, Kuroko’s Basketball (2012). Both series are popular and have a massive fan following, and as expected, both are also usually compared. Slam Dunk was known for its realistic basketball playing, while Kuroko’s Basketball was known for its exaggerated portrayal of the moves in the court. However, the smooth animation, likeable characters, and inspirational storylines made both series well-loved by the audience.

Another popular anime to take note of is Prince of Tennis (2001). Like Kuroko’s BasketballPrince of Tennis makes use of exaggerated moves to make exciting gameplay inside the tennis court. While quite unrealistic, the anime has also gained a fan following which led to a number of films, spin-offs, and even a musical. This may be due to the fact that unlike other sports anime that presents an underdog story, Prince of Tennis presents a genius tennis prodigy as a protagonist fighting it out with other tennis geniuses.

Hajime no Ippo (2000) is another fan-favorite among anime enthusiasts. It follows the story of Makunouchi Ippo, a bullied student, who discovers boxing and goes on to become a professional boxer. Even a non-boxing fan will find himself hooked to its inspiring underdog story with an inspiring protagonist and relatable supporting characters.


An anime that has gained praise from people most recently is Haikyu!! (2014). It recently finished the first part of its fourth season last April 2020 and will resume in July 2020. It is another underdog story of a fallen powerhouse team’s journey of trying to make it to the nationals for the second time. Its exciting animation while still being realistic, and the easy-to-follow story has helped even those unfamiliar with volleyball to enjoy watching this series.

The Rise of Less Popular Sports

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Throughout the years, baseball, basketball, volleyball, boxing, and even racing have become the most common sports used in stories for anime. However, in the last decade, there has been a huge rise of sports anime that uses less popular sports. One example is Yuri!!! On Ice (2016), a 12-episode anime on male figure skating. Despite not originating from a manga – like most anime – Yuri!!! On Ice still became popular for its heartwarming story and breathtaking animation.

Meanwhile, Chihayafuru (2011) focuses on a completely unique sport: karuta. It is a Japanese card game that not many foreigners would know. However, Chihayafuru was still able to gain the love of watchers despite the unfamiliar sport, due to its characters and the story of their successes and failures. Another anime that focuses on a Japanese sport is Tsurune: Kazemai Koukou Kyuudoubu (2018). The story revolves around Minato Narumiya, who rekindles his love for the sport he once quit: kyuudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. 


There are countless sports anime out there that focuses on other sports. Hanebado for badminton, Amanchu for scuba diving, and even Breakers for para-athletes! Right now, the newest to join the genre is the Wave!! anime, which focuses on the story of Masaki Hinaoka and his discovery for surfing.

With the popularity that sports anime has gathered over the years, it is no wonder that people have become more receptive to the variety of sports anime series we have today.

You might also enjoy:

10 Best Anime for Kids

The Rise and Epitome of Japanese Animation

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