Gray’s Top Sports Anime of All Time Ranking (That I’ve Seen So Far)

I’ve seen quite a few sports anime over the years, because it is essentially my favorite single subgenre within anime as a whole. It gives me motivation and I enjoy getting to know the characters and watching them progress as friends and as teammates as they attempt to achieve their lofty dreams. I think at this point I have seen the majority of quality shows that the subgenre has to offer, although there are a lot of notable series that I haven’t gotten around to.

Therefore, I’m gonna rank my top fifteen series for now, and update it over time as I watch more! I could do a list of twenty or more, but I feel most confident about these. Maybe I’ll expand it later. This is subjective, but here is my personal ranking!

15. Baby Steps

Baby steps is a series about a studious young lad who decides to start playing tennis, and immediately begins taking it seriously, aiming to improve and become the best. Due to his late start, improvement has to proceed at a vicious rate. Not to worry though, our protagonist is a complete nerd who takes many notebooks full of notes on every single aspect of improving his gameplay, clawing his way upwards through hard work and analysis. What I really enjoy about this series is that it does a lot of things very well. It is a jack of all trades with a good cast of protagonists and antagonists, an distinct main character, enthralling tennis duels, comedy, and even some romance!

The most important factor to me in making this series stand out is that it took on tennis entirely realistically with no gimmicks. As someone who has played a decent amount of competitive tennis, I know how exciting the game can be. You don’t need to give character impossible abilities such as superhuman drop shots that don’t bounce at all when they hit the ground (Prince of Tennis). It’s fine when series do use these abilities to make the sport more exciting, and it can be very cool if done correctly. However, using the game as it is deserves a lot of respect, and Baby Steps’ portrayal of tennis is spot on. It’s this low on my ranking probably because it didn’t really excel at anything in particular aside from portraying tennis realistically, but I hope that can change in the future!

14. One Outs

One Outs is a show about a baseball pitcher who is essentially a genius. He joins a baseball team, but there’s a unique condition to his salary: He gets a certain amount of money for every out he gets, and loses money for every run which is scored on him. This dude uses his genius to basically walk all over other baseball teams and their attempts at outsmarting him (and even the management of his own team) This is a fun series if you don’t mind the very weak supporting cast. Aside from a couple characters, this is essentially a one man show. It’s a good one though, and I love the infallible genius character type.

13. Eyeshield 21

Eyeshield 21 was my first sports anime. I watched it on a whim because I was bored while visiting colleges and thought “How bad could it be?” I thought it was great. Not only was it interesting, but it was pretty long, clocking in at 145 episodes, so I could lose myself in that world for a while. I was pleasantly surprised by the way that characters that seemingly were just side characters became further developed and integral parts of the team that I actually started to care about as the series went on. Sure, the series is a bit superficial, the action and techniques can be silly, and the protagonist is fairly basic, but the series features very exciting matches and a whole bunch of interesting, strong antagonists to fight the developed cast of protagonists. This means that you can watch every single matchup within the game with interest. Is the quarterback going to outsmart the other? Which receiver is going to run faster and jump higher? Can the line hold back the other side? Will our protagonist (a running back) be able to break through and score? Because you know all the characters, each of these micro battles is so gripping, and I think that’s an important part of sports anime that this series really gets right.

12. Yuri on Ice

Yuri on Ice is a short anime about a 23-year-old professional figure skater named Yuri who begins to question his career as he gets older, unable to reach the top. His idol, Viktor, decides to help him a bit on his quest to make another push for success on the world stage. The anime features a small cast of fun characters (notably, the other figure skaters from various countries competing against Yuri), a budding romance, and an array of intricate and beautiful figure skating routines. This is the kind of sports anime that both traditional sports anime fans and fans of other genres such as slice of life or romance may find enjoyable.

11. Daiya no Ace (Ace of Diamond)

First year high school student Sawamura Eijun joins prestigious baseball-centered high school named Seidou in order to become their ace pitcher. Sawamura is incredibly loud and irreverent, getting on everyone’s nerves but also making sure that they know who he is and what his goals are. Unfortunately for him, becoming the ace pitcher won’t be easy. Also a first year on the team is a pitching prodigy named Furuya Satoru, who is much cooler-headed and capable of throwing fastballs at a level far beyond the typical high school pitcher. The two of them develop a rivalry, push each other, and experience a rollercoaster of success and failure as the team attempts to compete at the national stage.

This anime has a HUGE cast of characters. The team itself has many dozens of them, as it needs to account for every starter, a cast of hopeful starters, substitute players, coaches, managers, and others. On one hand, this is great because it allows the team to become very complex as each member has strengths, weaknesses, interactions, and struggles that we can pay attention to. However, this also means that it is incredibly difficult to keep track of everyone, and for the characters to all get the development that they need, the series can often seem stretched out beyond its capacity. Ace of Diamond Act II, the most recent season, is a pretty painful slog, as not a lot of value happens and it just seems like a giant, slow-paced training arc (even though they are playing matches). The antagonists are not well-developed and there are too many of them to really remember who they all are, save two or three teams that deserve to have more attention. Still, you get really attached to the core team members of Seidou, and the length of the series allows you to witness their struggle, along with some genuinely exciting baseball action. The baseball games really nail the tense and exciting atmosphere that you expect from a good sports anime, and they are long enough that you can really sit back and enjoy every twist and turn of the game. This series does a lot of things well and a lot of things badly, so that is why it has to land at this spot on the list.

10. Slam Dunk

Slam Dunk is a basketball anime about a big hothead delinquent named Sakuragi Hanamichi, who joins his high school’s basketball team in order to impress a girl. He sucks at basketball and has to figure out how to play over the course of the series. He is rivals with the cool-headed Rukawa and they have a dynamic similar to the relationship between the two pitchers in Ace of Diamond. You really have to give some credit to Slam Dunk — the anime aired from 1993 to 1996, making this one of the pioneers of the Sports anime genre. The exciting basketball games and the development of the key rivals and teammates along with the novelty of the main character essentially having to learn basketball from scratch really seemed to resonate with viewers, making the series very popular. Early sports anime like this paved the way for all of the other modern sports anime on this list!

9. Ping Pong: The Animation

Ping Pong the animation is a short anime (11 episodes) in an animation style that many people probably would be thrown off by. IT is not your typical sports anime with a lovable cast of team mates that slowly improves and surpasses their rivals with the help of hard work, friendship, and strategy. This anime follows Smile and Peco, two amazing ping pong players who grew up playing together. Smile has to overcome his mental block toward beating Peco and his psychological difficulties and motivation toward his life and ping pong as a whole, and Peco has to deal with a devastating defeat. This anime is more mature than the typical sports anime, and sometimes you’re just in the mood for that sort of thing.

8. Yowamushi Pedal

Yowamushi Pedal follows a small first year high school student named Onoda Sakamichi, who has ridden very casually on a non-racing bike for transportation and fun, such as riding to Akihabara (a Tokyo district focused on anime), since he was a little kid. This inadvertently makes him pretty good at cycling, and he joins the high school cycling team despite his meek demeanor and completely unmuscular frame. There are three main roles in the world of anime cycling — you can be a sprinter, you can be a climber, or you can be an all-rounder that does both. Onoda wants to be a climber, and the rest of the team settles into their roles as well in order to challenge the other 6-man squads at the Inter-High. Cycling doesn’t seem inherently very interesting, but the bicycle races are surprisingly action-packed. Usually, there will be two or three people from various schools who break off and have a duel, either to get to a meaningful checkpoint first or to finish the race first. In their duels, they break out new techniques or skills that they have honed (one guy swerves back and forth rapidly to climb faster, another guy uses his giant lungs to superpower himself, and another exposes his abs to give him extra power). The characters go faster when they have emotional breakthroughs about their feelings towards biking, their attitude towards their teammates, or when they have trained a lot in a valuable way. The races remain interesting because of all the different rivalries and characters that have been developed, and although there are only three main schools competing, that turns out to be more than enough to carry the series.

7. Run With the Wind

Run with the Wind is about a college track team, which already makes this anime special, because most sports anime feature high school characters. Having older characters shakes things up a bit and makes the series more relatable to viewers who are already well into adulthood. Although the core sport of the sports anime does not appear to lend itself well to the sports anime genre in terms of the lack of complex tactical battles and exciting action, this is the case with many of the anime on this list. The core truth of the matter is that the anime medium can literally make watching paint dry interesting if it is done well enough.

The main character, Kurahara Kakeru, is a first year student who basically is at rock bottom in his life. He comes into the plot having just openly shoplifted from a convenience store. After being chased down by Kiyose Haiji (on a bicycle), he returns the item to the store and is subsequently forced onto the track team by Haiji. Haiji essentially then proceeds to force a full team of 10 college students to join the track team so that they can compete in a race together called the Hakone Ekiden, luring the students in with promises of cheap rent and otherwise bothering them until they join. Most of the members are entirely inexperienced with running, and the series follows their journey of training to get fast enough to qualify for the Ekiden.

The core of the series though, is that every member of the team has personal issues in their lives that they move past with the help of running. Running becomes a metaphor for progressing through their life difficulties and moving forward to a better life. “Do you like running?” is the first line of the series, and it actually has a double meaning. Although it appears to be referring to the exercise, what it really asks is whether the person truly wants to continue avoiding and hiding from their problems, or if the person instead wants to face them, confront them, and work to surpass them. This sports anime is not afraid to explore the psyche of the team members while making sure that they all have a really fun dynamic to balance the serious parts out.

6. Chihayafuru

Chihayafuru has one of the most challenging premises in all of sports anime, as it is about competitive card memorization. Karuta is a game where there are a bunch of cards laid out on a table in front of two players facing one another. The cards have different fragments of poetry written on them. A neutral third party reads out one of the fragments of poetry, and the first player to touch the card with that fragment written on it scores a point. The one who gets the most points wins. I may have botched the rules quite a bit, and they are more complex than this, but that doesn’t matter. The truth is that as a spectator sport, this card game is pretty inherently boring. The anime, however, is entirely not boring. The players are shown thinking tactically to the extent that the game allows it, the players have inner emotional struggles that heavily impact their gameplay, and the players swipe energetically toward the cards as the cards fly dramatically across the room signaling a point for one of the players.

One of the best things about this anime is that the main character, Chihaya, is female. We don’t have enough female representation in anime, especially among main characters. The character herself is passionate and intelligent, and it is fun to see her construct the team and teach them about her niche game. Karuta being so niche makes the viewer think that any hobby or interest can be really cool if you really get into it and work at improving, which is inspiring. Chihaya’s relationship with the other two main characters of the series, childhood friends Taichi and Arata, is also compelling, and there is a romantic element involved as well. Give it a shot and you won’t be disappointed.

5. Kuroko no Basuke (Kuroko’s Basketball)

Kuroko no Baskuke is a hype train that I didn’t want to reach the station. The main character is Kuroko, a first year high school student who is short, thin, and very unassuming. He looks like he would be bad at basketball, and he is — except for one thing. Passing. He can bitch slap a basketball across the court and into someone’s hand in a split second, and pairs this with his uncanny ability to fade unnoticed into the background. He is paired with firey first-year Kagami, who is really athletically skilled, can jump to the moon, and can dunk with ease. The main rivals, Kuroko’s former teammates are all incredibly hyped and possess superhuman abilities that they use to dominate their adversaries. Such abilities include being able to score a three pointer with 100% accuracy from anywhere, the ability to copy what anyone else on the court is doing, and the ability to shoot a basketball without caring about form. The cast of characters is funny and lovable, and the animation is fast, hyped up, and dramatic. It’s exactly what you want in a sports anime, and does every part of the standard formula of the genre pretty well.

4. Shokugeki no Soma

Is this technically a sports anime? I don’t know. What even is a sport? But I’m going to count it in the genre. Shokugeki no Soma is centered around a high school full of aspiring gourmet chefs. They are all struggling to avoid being kicked out of the school for sucking at cooking and, conversely, to reach the upper echelon of the school’s ranks known as the Elite Ten. In order to decide which chef is superior, the chefs have a duel known as a Shokugeki, which is just basically a cookoff. Whoever makes the best dish wins. As reality shows such as Chopped and Hell’s Kitchen show us, cooking battles can be extremely entertaining, and even more so when the series involves so much hype, dramatic twists, and specialized cooking techniques. Usually the shows up the stakes in the battles by making something heavy like expulsion be the consequence for losing. The protagonist is a special brand of genius, believing fully in his diner-style brand of cooking and unmatched ability to improvise ridiculous new recipes and ideas on the spot. There is never a dull moment with him, and you definitely appreciate his confidence and unpredictability compared to the generic bland protagonists that shows often default to. The show does involve some more risque elements in that people’s clothes explode off when they eat a particularly good dish, but this is meant to emphasize how good the food is. Maybe don’t watch it in public unless you want to try explaining that to someone.

3. Major

Major is a baseball anime and is unique because the main character, Goro, starts in elementary school and slowly gets older each season until he is a fully grown adult. This is interesting because timeskips are fun and it allows you the unique experience of experiencing the same character at many different points of his life. The downside of this series is the lack of substantial supporting characters and rivals, but the core main characters carry the show enough for this to not matter too much. The interaction between Goro and his main rival Toshiya is a really fun journey, and the series also shows emotional depth when it deals with Goro’s feelings towards the pro player who accidentally killed his father with a pitch during a baseball game. Major has some weaknesses, but I really felt like I had watched an anime character’s life over like twenty years by the end, and that gives the series a unique appeal.

2. Haikyuu!

Haikyuu, a volleyball anime, has actually become one of the most popular anime of the last few years. For many people, this anime is how they got into sports anime at all, and perhaps was even one of the first anime they had ever seen. When I watched the first season, the show had just started coming out and hadn’t gotten much traction yet. I thought the show was good, but it hadn’t yet excelled at anything. However, the show was ramping up then. By the second season, the show had exploded into a hype thrill ride with an amazing developed cast and absolutely stunning visuals and music. Haikyuu is a series that has everything you could ever dream of in an anime. The aforementioned visuals and music, a main character with a personality, a fantastic cast of rivals, a lovable and hilarious main team, and an inherently interesting sport that lends itself well to teamwork, strategy, and action. I don’t have anything bad to say about this show. Watch it if you haven’t, but you probably have.

1. Hajime no Ippo

I started watching this show in high school. It was my second sports anime, and I actually dropped it after a few episodes the first time I tried watching it. But after starting it again, I started to see its value. Hajime no Ippo is a show about one man’s journey towards the top of the Japanese boxing scene through sheer hard work and determination. There are no shortcuts for Ippo. No bullshit techniques that allow you to instantly teleport behind the enemy and inflict 1000 punches in a single second with the power of a freight train. Ippo is just a nice dude that is willing to put in the effort to make himself stronger. He wants to find out what being strong truly means. And that makes it that much sweeter of a victory when he wins, because you know that he scraped that victory up from nothing after training his ass off. The fights themselves are exciting and strategic, and each boxer has their own style that Ippo has to overcome. Ippo has real life problems that he has to work through, and so do his rivals and fellow boxers. The other boxers at his gym provide amazing comic relief and even feature in their own fights. Ippo is coached by Kamogawa, the owner of the boxing gym, and he provides much needed mentoring and wisdom. However, is Ippo really the star of this anime? Yes but also no. Also frequenting the same gym is boxer Takamura, who is a brash and animalistic man, substantially older and heavier than Ippo, who trains to dominate his weight class with his savage strength. Although these two do not fight eachother, the viewer is treated to Takamura’s fights as well, allowing us to cheer for two different styles and personalities. Takamura is just cool, I mean, who else knocks out a fucking bear?

This series is sheer motivation. This is the kind of show that you watch before you go to the gym or take a difficult exam. Your dreams are achievable if you put in the work and fight with everything you’ve got. That’s the message this show is sending its viewers. I still watch a scene from this show sometimes when I get nervous. That pure motivation and energy is the core of what I watch sports anime for — watch it and see what I mean.

Thanks for reading the list!