I am a huge fan of sports, like a massive uber fan. There's only a handful of sports I actively disdain in every capacity (like golf, motorsports, and cricket to name a few) so being a fan of both sports and anime it would seem like a no-brainer that I'd like sports anime, right? Well, that's where you'd be somewhat wrong. I actually avoided sports anime for the most part until 2013. Granted this wasn't entirely by choice, but rather because I didn't really know sports anime was a thing. Back before I went on my anime hiatus, there was exactly three sports anime I knew of; The Prince of Tennis(which I saw a couple of episodes of and then stopped watching), Eyeshield 21(which I didn't watch at all) and Suzuka. Suzuka was the first sports anime I saw to completion, but at the time I never really saw it as a sports anime, but rather a romance anime with a sports flavoring.
2013 would be the year I'd return from my anime hiatus and would end up being a banner year for the sports genre, and as a result would change my taste in anime going forward. The first sports series I would see that year was the massively popular Free! - Iwatobi Swim Club. I went in knowing full well its reputation as being a show primarily aimed at women, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was funny and had great animation and tense racing scenes, though the writing did leave me wanting more.
But it would be the Fall 2013 season that would introduce me to three different sports series that would cement my love of the genre. Those three being Yowamushi Pedal, Ace of the Diamond, and Hajime no Ippo: Rising (which, btw, is where the header GIF is from). All three shows had me hooked and excited to see each subsequent episode. But best of all was how they each managed to just take me by complete and utter surprise. This especially applies to Yowamushi Pedal. Ace of the Diamond is baseball and Hajime no Ippo is boxing, so I could at least somewhat understand how they could be made into anime, and exciting anime at that. But Yowapeda? That's cycling man. One of sports I used to consider "boring". How the hell could they make that into a captivating show? Well needless to say, the show obliterated my doubts.
So with how I came to love sports anime out of the way, now it is time for why I love sports anime.
Since my primary source of anime growing up was Toonami, I naturally became a rather large fan of shonen battle series such as Dragonball, Yu Yu Hakusho, and their ilk. However one problem I always had with that genre is that a lot of the characters I tended to like (ie, the villains (cause seriously, the villains tend to be great in shonen battle series)) often wound up coming down with a bad case of death, so often once they lost/died, that was it.
One thing to quickly endear me to sports anime was the fact that characters, even villains/rivals don't die(usually, though I've yet to see a character die in a sports anime that I've watched). This means I get to see something that rarely occurs in shonen battle series, the much anticipated rematch. This is something that carries over from my love of real life sports. When one of my teams loses to a rival or a team I just don't like and I'm left all salty, I greatly look forward to a chance at a rematch later on down the road.
There's no way of getting around it, the "average" sports anime series has a massive cast of characters. Not only do you have the entire team of the protagonists(and this isn't limited to just the ones actually playing, many of these teams have reserves, you know) and their coaching staff and team managers, but you also have numerous rival teams to account for. And while the rival teams often only have a couple of stand out characters, that still adds up over time, especially if a series has a tournament structure to it.
And yet with even all of that, many of these characters still end up standing out enough to make each of them memorable. Sure it can become hard to remember all the names, but I will instantly recognize their appearances and personalities. It's just flat out impossible for me to not find a character I like.
It feels odd saying one of the reasons I love sports anime is that they are more about the characters than the sport, but it is true. I am a massive fan of shows that are character-focused, and that is largely what sports anime are. For many series you can easily swap the sports and it will have little effect on the show. It's all about the characters and their trials and tribulations and in that regards, the sport of each series is just the vehicle used to guide them through their personal tales. And this is something that is kind of echoed in real life sports. Real life sports is rife with captivating tales and you have to look no further than ESPN's amazing 30 for 30 series of documentaries to see just how fascinating the tales of athletes can be.
And I don't just mean Free! being a franchise about a bunch of ripped guys in swimsuits either. Sports anime in general have appeal for both sexes for various reasons. The characters are well developed, there is often quite a bit of well done comedy, the action scenes are usually super intense, and there is a lot of bromance. A LOT of bromance. And well done bromance can work out in favor for everyone, for guys it has that strong "I got your back" kind of bond between the characters, and for the ladies, well let's just say sports series make it all too easy to be spun into yaoi. And hell, if male viewers want cute characters to fawn over, well most of these series have lovely ladies as the team managers, so there you go.
That right there is Encouragement of Climb(more specifically the sequel season Encouragement of Climb 2). It's a short format cute girls doing cute things slice of life series. It's also a sports anime. How? Well because it is primarily about girls doing mountaineering, which is the sport of mountain climbing. And really that's all a sports anime needs to be a sports anime. It just has to be based around a sport in some capacity. That makes the genre one of the most fluid genres in anime, because each sports anime takes on its own form based around its accompanying genres. Sure the majority will be shonen action/battle series like Yowapeda, Haikyuu!!, and Hajime no Ippo, but then you'll also have romance sports series like Suzuka, psychological sports series like Ping Pong the Animation, and slice of life sports series like Encouragement of Climb.
I've become such a fan of sports anime nowadays that pretty much any sports series that comes across my radar I will watch just because it is a sports series. No other genre has that pull on me nowadays. Even slice of life shows, which I generally enjoy the hell out of, doesn't get this reaction from me. One thing I've come to notice, though, is sports anime tends to be the one genre that has trouble catching on outside of Japan. Several sports series are extremely popular in Japan, but they just don't seem to be nearly as popular with anime fans elsewhere, and this is a bit of a shame, as some of my best experiences with anime in 2013 and 2014 were from sports anime.
And if anyone is interested in getting into sports anime, here are some recommendations from me:
Ace of the Diamond, Encouragement of Climb 2(I would also suggest the first season but it is no longer on Crunchyroll, though EoC2 does a decent enough job getting new viewers up to speed), Haikyuu!!, Hajime no Ippo: Rising, Ping Pong the Animation, and Yowamushi Pedal