It’s my worst kept secret that I’m a sucker for a sports anime. I read a few chapters of Prince of Tennis, which was fun, but my whole-hearted love for a slice-of-life, high-school-tournament arc began with Haikyu!! I went absolutely feral for these dumb high school boys who only had volleyball feelings and could not even comprehend why anyone wouldn’t care about volleyball.
And then I watched a season of Free, a friend introduced me to Yuri on Ice, and I lost more than a few hours to Kuroko No Basket.
I won’t wax poetic about why I love a sports anime, but I hope this list of indie tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) will demonstrate some of those reasons. Each of these games places earnestness, hopefulness, and high emotional stakes at the core of their designs, emphasising reflective and sentimental gameplay while still holding characters accountable for failures.
I did mention that Haikyu!! was my gateway show to sports anime, right? Volley Boys!! by Kevin Thien Vu Long Nguyen, takes the emotional stakes of Haikyu!! and translates them into motivation-driven mechanics using Avery Alder’s Belonging Outside Belonging game engine. While not exclusive to a volleyball team, this game has recognisable ties to our favourite Kurasuno dumbasses. Volley Boys!! creates a game of self-sacrifice for the good of others, encouraging players to carefully consider when their character gets the limelight, recreating the storytelling impact of an ensemble cast within the gameplay.
For your all-purpose sports story, Fight with Spirit: a Sports Drama RPG, by Storybrewers, uses a combination of deck building for matches and a series of team-based relationships to create a fully fleshed out world for your sports team to play in. The game is incredibly fleshed out, tackling the tropes of the genre multiple ways, from figuring out who your coach is (and why he mysteriously retired from professional play) to developing your team’s backstory… and establishing their rivals. With an episodic, scene-based gameplay structure, Fight with Spirit provides space for personal moments of drama amid the high-stakes matches that truly stand out as this game’s mechanical triumph.
I love a game that is designed to be played in one sitting, and Derby Drama, by Libby Horacek, is no exception. While the sport is fixed, the game allows players to create their own setting, making Derby Drama a versatile and replayable game that can be set in an underground Victorian racetrack or on an orbital station. This game does a great job of translating roller derby rules into a tabletop game, one of the few TTRPGs on this list to establish ways to use dice to mechanically imitate a physical sport.
One of the things I love about sports anime is that no matter what is going on in a character’s personal life, they never fail to make it to the game. Combining moments of personal drama in between games is essential, and Tournament Arc by Biscuit Fund Games uses Relationship Points to create drama and tension within gameplay. There are rules created for “Exam Season” and “Summer Break” as well, emphasising again that the friendships, bonds, and rivalries are what makes a sports TTRPG worth playing.
Varsity, by Rosemary McLean, is a fantastic example of how you can design a Powered by the Apocalypse hack that emphasises the storytelling of the system while customising the moves to emulate the tropes of any given genre. With incredibly evocative playbooks and two sets of moves–one for in-world matches and one for out-of-match character interactions–Varsity’s rules clearly and succinctly embody the agendas it lays out in the first pages; the game is everything, except when it’s not.
Another TTRPG that’s sports-inclusive (even though those reading the book will be able to pick out the colours of Haikyu!! jerseys from various teams through the series), No Choice but to Win, by Z. R. Capell, has a fun character creation system that uses tags instead of stats, giving the characters clear narrative drives and incentives within gameplay. The moves allowed characters are also specific to each trope-focused playbook, making it a great vehicle to explore the inner workings of your characters. This game uses a version of Harmony Drive to create dice pools when players want to take action, which means that collaboration is at the forefront of the mechanics.
We’re closing this list up with a throwback to a classic sports anime show. Anyone who watched television in the early aughts remembers Friday Night Lights, and Clear Eyes / Full Hearts by Eric Silver and Mischa Stanton aims to remind us why just about everyone loved this soapy teen drama. With a whole town rallying behind your team, this game creates a sense of collective pride and pressure that is unique to this list. It’s GM-less but still packs a mechanical punch with a system that requires dice rolls which are impacted by both the physical and emotional states of the characters.