What makes a great sports movie?
From Rocky to Seabiscuit, we analyse the 50 best sports films as they appear on IMDb to break down the anatomy of a classic.
Hollywood, thriller, box office.
These are words sports fans and pundits use all the time when trying to describe an exciting moment.
Attend a handful of sporting events yourself and the chances are that, at least once, you will have overheard someone say that what is unfolding on the pitch, court or ring ‘belongs in a movie’.
Sport by its very nature is unpredictable, visceral and full of drama – all qualities that lend themselves well to the silver screen.
The arcs, narratives and redemption stories that follow certain players or teams throughout a season easily dovetail with the blueprint for a feature-length hit.
It’s no surprise, then, that there have been plenty of attempts to distil those stories into pieces of cinema – there are currently 4,385 titles that appear under the sports umbrella on IMDb.
Films about sport can be big money spinners, too, with the top 10 box-offices hits under that genre on IMDb making $1.9bn collectively.
But despite such a rich subject matter, creating a great sports movie isn’t all that simple. For every Rocky, there’s a Goal III: Taking on the World.
So what sets the sublime apart from the ridiculous? We analyse the top 50 sports movies on IMDb to break down the anatomy of a great one…
It’s got to be realistic
This is a big one. For a sports movie to be great, you must believe that the actual events of the film could happen.
What makes sports such a popular choice for film-makers are the feelings that they evoke.
Just as in online casino, there is always a winner and a loser. The added jeopardy created by the prospect of defeat means that you are almost always guaranteed a broad spectrum of emotions.
Portray that correctly and it’s perfect film fodder.
To truly tap into the emotional side of sport, a film has to have a degree of realism and look convincing. If not, a serious movie can border on parody.
There is a reason why Bend It Like Beckham! doesn’t make the cut here. Remember that free-kick scene at the end? Shocking.
That level of realism is more commonly achieved by recreating professional sports rather than those in an amateur setting – 30 of IMDb’s top 50 sports films centre around professionals.
Done faithfully, it can be hard to tell the difference.
Included in that 30 is MMA film Warrior, which has an IMDb rating of 8.2 – the highest of any sports movie on the website.
According to lead actor Tom Hardy, the fight scenes in the film were so true to life that he broke his ribs and tore the ligaments in his right arm during filming.
Another way of making sports films feel more convincing is by latching on to real-life stories. Thirty-one of the top 50 films are either biographical or based true events.
It’s easier to make something seem real if it actually happened.
There needs to be a strong story and compelling hero
Sport is obviously central to the basis of any great sports film, but it’s not just about that. They need a captivating story too, otherwise they would just take the form of a highlights reel.
Imagine a version of Rocky where we aren’t told anything about the difficulties he has faced or his rough background. It makes an all-time classic an eminently less watchable film.
If it’s the sport that hooks you in, it’s the backstory to the film’s hero that keeps you watching.
Sometimes that hero can take the form of a full team, but in a great sports film it is more common for them to be a singular character.
Of the top 50 sports films on IMDb, 27 focus on individual sports rather than ones played in a team.
It’s much easier to tell the life story of one person rather than 11. As a viewer, meanwhile, you can invest more into a single protagonist than you would be able to in an entire team.
Boxing is best
No sport is better suited to cinema than boxing.
Given the above, it’s no surprise that the most popular type of sport featured within the top 50 is one played by individuals.
Boxing films account for 20 per cent of the list, while movies about all combat sports – boxing, MMA, wrestling and karate – make up 14 of the 50.
Of the three movies in the top 50 to have won Best Picture at the Oscars, meanwhile, two are about boxing – Rocky and Million Dollar Baby.
In these movies, the sport generally works as a metaphor for the life of the main character. The violence and unpredictability of boxing, then, makes it a perfect match for cinema.
The fights are exciting, dramatic and feel dangerous. They also serve as a natural culmination to the familiar trial-and-tribulation narrative that is baked into almost every boxing movie.
The rarely-strayed-from basic storyline goes like this: the down-on-their-luck protagonist is offered a championship fight, a trainer pushes them to their limits, they have an injury or difficulty to overcome, the fight happens and the film ends as they return home having either won or lost.
It’s the archetypal underdog story, and who doesn’t love that?
It should end in triumph
Before any disagreements start, it is true that some classic sports films do not end happily or culminate in a victory for the main character.
Sport isn’t always about winning or losing, as the cliché suggests it’s the journey that counts.
But while the importance of the storyline and character development can’t be understated in a sports film, viewers still want something to celebrate at the end.
Broadly speaking, a great film ends with the individual or team winning the event that the story has been building towards.
Thirty-eight of the 50 films on IMDb’s list support this argument.
One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly because of the number of real-life stories that are being told in these films.
It’s reasonable to assume that the most memorable sporting stories are the ones that ended in triumph.
Very few people care about the football team that lost in the first round of the cup. But underdogs that won it? Welcome to Hollywood.
Of the 31 sports movies in the list that are based on real-life events, 24 have a happy ending.
It’s understandable that a viewer wants a pay-off at the end of a film and, having invested time and emotion into the story, a positive climax is undeniably more fulfilling.