Look, I don’t really care about sports. As a Canadian, I’ll watch the occasional hockey game, and I’ve dabbled in watching baseball and basketball, but I’ve never been invested in any particular sport or team. However, put on a sports anime, and I will passionately root for some underdog team of misfit high-schoolers every time. There’s just something about the mixture of sports and shonen anime that brings out the best of both mediums. At their best, sports anime delight us with their beautifully animated spectacle, make us cry when the third years have to graduate and move on (it’s a big thing, trust me), and maybe even inspire us to go pick up a sport ourselves. If you’ve never tried out a sports anime before because, like me, you don’t care about real sports or if you’ve watched some sports anime and are just looking for some recommendations, here’s a list of some of the greatest sports anime that you’ll most likely enjoy!
Kuroko No Basket (2012-2015)
American transfer student Kagami Taiga returns to his native homeland of Japan and enrolls in Seirin High School’s basketball team, where he meets Kuroko Tetsuya, a seemingly unremarkable wallflower whose passion for basketball is matched only by his lack of ability for the basics of the sport. As the two become friends, Kuroko reveals his true reason for joining Seirin’s basketball team: to defeat his former middle school teammates, the legendary “Generation of Miracles,” and to teach them the value of the teamwork they have lost sight of. But, as a former backup player on his last team, Kuroko’s limited basketball skills relegate him to a supporting role, and in order to accomplish his quest, he needs a star player like Kagami to help him. Thus begins their unusual partnership, as the two unite to take down five different basketball prodigies.
The first sports anime I ever watched, Kuroko no Basket set the bar high for the genre and became one of my very favourite anime of all time, sports or no. If you’re interested in watching a realistic and grounded anime about kids who play sports, Kuroko no Basket is probably not the series for you. But, if you think a shonen battle anime with superpowers played out on a basketball court sounds fun, then this anime is definitely something you want to experience. Each of “The Generation of Miracles” possesses some kind of “superpower” or unique ability that stretches the bounds of realism, from instantly being able to mimic any play they see to reducing their court presence enough to turn momentarily invisible. While these abilities are sometimes an extreme dramatization of real basketball plays, each time a player enacts one of his moves, he introduces it by yelling out an absurd name that sounds like something straight out of Fairy Tail or Hunter x Hunter (e.g. “Misdirection Overflow” or “Ignite Pass”). It’s all a bit silly, but there’s no denying that these larger-than-life games of super-powered athletes battling against each other are epic to watch.
While you might be tempted to dismiss the anime as absurd based on its premise, Kuroko no Basket is 100% serious in its commitment to its melodramatic story, providing an impressive blend of crisp and fluid animation; contagious energy; and a perfectly-paced, compelling, and surprisingly emotional storyline. The series’ vast cast of characters are shockingly well-developed and entirely unforgettable, the music is stellar and elevates each basketball game to an insane level of drama, and the anime never once dips below its high standard of quality throughout its three season run. So, if you’re looking for an exciting sports anime that totally disregards reality in order to turn sports into something truly epic in scope, look no further than Kuroko no Basket.
Kuroko no Basket is currently legally available for streaming on Crunchyroll.
It’s not often that a sports anime gets six seasons plus OVAs, but Major does and does it well. Throughout its six seasons, Major tells the story of Gorou Honda from kindergarten to adulthood, as he pursues his dream of becoming a pitcher in Major League Baseball. It’s rare that you get to see any protagonist gradually mature and evolve over the span of two decades, so Gorou’s thoughtfully developed and well-written journey makes him an instantly iconic and memorable character within the genre. While the show of course has the occasional slip-up and can at times become a bit repetitive throughout its lengthy run, the overall journey is incredibly impactful, and I freely admit to tearing up during multiple episodes.
If you’re not keen on baseball and find the sport boring (like I do), you should be warned that Major is definitely a love letter to the sport, fascinated by the ins-and-outs of the game as well as the culture and legends that surround it. However, Major is also a coming-of-age story, deeply invested in exploring more personal topics like relationships, family, grief, national identity, and even physical and mental trauma. Unlike most of the other entries on this list, Major definitely attempts to convey a more realistic depiction of its sport; much of the show focuses on the physical and mental toll caused by sports injuries, for instance. But, for those worried that Major might not deliver as much sports anime excitement, the constant focus on realistic injuries also definitely serves to raise the games’ stakes and to hype you up each time an injured player manages to pitch inning after inning. So, whether you’re interested in a personal coming-of-age story or you’re looking for epic baseball rivalries and pitching duels, I firmly believe Major has something for every anime fan. Just give it about six episodes (until the prologue finishes), and I guarantee you’ll be hooked.
Unfortunately, Major is not currently legally available on any anime streaming site, but, if you think this anime sounds like something you might like, it is available on some… less than savoury sites (you know the ones). If it seems like too much of a hassle to track down an older and admittedly hard to locate anime, Crunchyroll is currently airing the second season of Major 2nd, a relatively standalone sequel series about Gorou’s son. While it may be too soon to call it now, Major 2nd is shaping up to be just as charming, well-written, and heartfelt as its predecessor was. So, whether you decide to watch the new series or decide to commit to the older one, I’m sure you’ll find something in the Major franchise that grabs your attention.
Haikyuu!! is the only ongoing anime on this list, with the first half of its fourth season having just wrapped up and the second half coming this July, and it’s definitely worth catching up on before the new episodes drop. Like almost all sports anime, Haikyuu!! is about an underdog team struggling to win their sport’s national tournament. The series’ protagonist is Hinata Shoyo, whose short stature repeatedly hampers his dream to play competitive volleyball. When he enrolls in Karasuno High School, he finds himself trying out for the volleyball team alongside Kageyama Tobio, a volleyball prodigy who once crushed Hinata’s middle school team. However, even the gifted Kageyama struggles with his own handicap, since his authoritarian and demanding personality causes divisions on any team he joins. Despite their differences and personal history, Hinata and Kageyama must learn to work together and become a part of a larger team if they want to continue playing the sport they both love.
As someone who had a very minimal knowledge of volleyball before starting this anime, I can testify to its accessibility. Within a few episodes, you’ll have the basic understanding of the sport down, as the show’s many helpful asides quickly catch you up to speed. But, perhaps because of its frequent exposition of the sport, Haiykuu!! does take a little while to get off the ground; the first half of the first season is quite slow compared to the other entries on this list, and the show initially struggles to create a distinct identity for itself. While watching the first several episodes, I often found myself comparing the series to the more exciting Kuroko no Basket and nearly dropped the anime. However, I stuck with it, and I was pleased to see that Haikyuu!! drastically improves as it progresses, even finding its own clear voice and charm. Unlike Kuroko no Basket, Haikyuu!!’s greatest strength is its strong sense of realism, from the grounded feel of its games to its complex cast of characters.
Unlike most shonen anime where teenage boys look more like ripped, thirty-year-old men, Haikyuu!!’s cast of characters really feel (and sometimes even look) like teenagers, as each is constantly growing and learning new ways to improve, both as volleyball players and as people. The relationships between all of the boys are incredibly well-written, and each of the kids has a unique dynamic with every other player on the team. Haikyuu!!’s ability to write such unique interactions between each of the characters is especially impressive since it has one of the largest casts of characters in any sports anime. The entire Karasuno starting team, as well as many of its backup players, is given ample time to develop throughout the series, and almost all of the rival teams get at least a couple players with backstories, friendships, rivalries, and goals that the series explores quite thoroughly. Unlike Kuroko no Basket or Major, there really aren’t any villains in Haikyuu!!; there are just other likeable, charming, and motivated kids whose dreams oppose the main characters’. It’s a much more realistic approach, and depicting each of the characters as nothing more than goofy, intense, immature, or passionate kids who love volleyball might be the series’ best decision. Because our protagonists feel more or less like normal people, we feel that much more invested in seeing their dreams come true.
If you want to watch a more tame sports anime, where the games actually play out like real sports games do, where the focus is primarily on the chemistry between the players, then Haikyuu!! is definitely an anime you’ll want to check out. The show is not without its faults, as almost every season has suffered from some inconsistent pacing. However, when the series does kick into high-gear, there are few sports anime that can match the blood-pumping games Haikyuu!! consistently delivers with its lifelike animation, fast action, and impressive soundtrack.
Haikyuu!! is currently legally available for streaming on Crunchyroll.
Cross Game (2009-2010)
Based on the manga by the legendary Adachi Mitsuru, a man who has written more baseball manga than perhaps any one person should, Cross Game perfects his method of telling universally relevant and human stories through the medium of baseball. In Cross Game, we are introduced to neighbours and childhood “friends” Kitamura Kou and Tsukishima Aoba who share both a great deal of personal history and animosity. Tomboy Aoba lives and breathes baseball, but as she approaches high school, her too-brief stint as pitcher on the boys’ team is nearing its end. Kou, despite being a talented batter, is a laid-back slacker, and his apathy towards baseball disgusts Aoba, whose ideal man is one that can throw a fastball at a hundred miles per hour. The two couldn’t be more different, so of course the primary focus of the 50-episode series is their combative friendship that slowly blossoms into romance.
Okay, so, if sports anime really aren’t your thing, Cross Game might be the only anime on this list that will still appeal to you. Despite focusing on characters who play baseball, Cross Game is definitely more of a romantic comedy and coming-of-age story than it is a sports anime. The series prioritizes the introspection, feelings, and lives of its two leads far more than it does the occasional baseball match (which are still very well-done, for the record). Anyone who has watched any amount of sports anime can tell you that compelling female characters are somewhat of a rarity in the genre, but because of its heavy emphasis on romance and character-development, Cross Game is a notable exception to that rule. There are several important female characters in the series, but the most noteworthy is deuteragonist Aoba, who remains one of the most likeable and interesting characters in all of sports anime.
A girl whose sole passion has been baseball practically from infancy, Aoba must resign herself to the fact that she can never compete in the tournament at the nationally significant and glorious Koshien Stadium no matter how good of a pitcher she is, simply because she is a girl. Once she enters high school, she’ll be kicked off the boys’ team’s roster, and her only option will be women’s softball, a sport she feels lacks any national recognition or real competition for her. Throughout the series, her frustration and angst is palpable and fuels a great deal of her resentment towards Kou, a slacker who could be living out her baseball dreams if only he applied himself. Her unfortunate situation as a female baseball player, as well as her complicated personal history with Kou, heavily influences the progression of their relationship, giving her character a greater significance and emotional depth than the typical female character found in most sports anime. I’ve always wanted a female character in a sports anime to play a more interesting role than just the team manager or the love interest, and while Aoba is Kou’s love interest, her character is by no means limited to such a one-dimensional role, which is really refreshing.
On top of its compelling female characters and well-written romance, Cross Game perfectly captures the atmosphere and sensations of childhood summers (embodied in the excellent OP “Summer Rain” by Kobukuro) and vividly portrays that peculiar period between carefree childhood and the looming responsibility of adulthood. So much of the series is dedicated to the mundane details of Kou and Aoba’s lives, whether it’s school, their home lives, or their part-time jobs. We see them deal with first crushes, go on first dates, make new friends, and slowly leave childhood behind as they grow up. By the end of the series, these two feel like real people who have grown from children to young adults before our very eyes, and that almost melancholy depiction of the liminality of adolescence is one of Cross Game’s most fascinating qualities.
If you’re looking for an anime with a great romance, compelling female characters, and a great sense of tone and atmosphere, Cross Game is a perfect choice for a good summer binge, regardless of whether you like sports or not. While Cross Game is not legally available on any major anime streaming site at this time, it is a much easier series to find than Major, so long as you know which sites to look for (if you know, you know, and if you don’t, ask me). So, go do yourself a favour, and indulge in one of the most beautiful, well-written, and memorable sports anime ever made.
Obviously, this list isn’t comprehensive, as I only spotlighted four anime within a huge genre. There are a ton of other great sports anime out there that I didn’t mention, but I believe that these four series are some of the best gateways into the genre. If I missed your favourite sports anime (which is quite possible, since I didn’t even mention some of my own favourites), feel free to sound off in the comment section and keep the discussion about great sports anime going!