Whether it’s the heart-melting jersey scene in Rudy or Rocky’s triumphant battle overall odds sports movies capture the hearts of audiences in a truly unique manner. But it’s not the sports themselves that conjure the emotion we feel. Sports are nothing more than a set of rules. What makes sports movies powerful is their ability to show human struggle and conflict as their characters struggle with set rules in their own lives. This fact leads me to my first point on what makes sports movies good movies.
Underdog Gets His Bone
Sure, big sports teams like the New York Giants and the New England Patriots have the money to buy stars and stack the roster but it’s no fun watching the big guy smash an ill-equipped adversary. What sports fans and moviegoers both find more rewarding is watching a story about an underdog who, despite adversity, rose through the ranks to be able to play within the big leagues.
It’s movies like The Fighter that show characters changing the narrative that surrounds their lives while struggling to define themselves. Even Money Ball follows a wild numbers game that results in a record-breaking season for the Oakland A’s. It’s a time-honored story structure that sports and movie fans love to see time and time again.
Maybe the main character of your film isn’t technically an underdog. Maybe they are the best in their sport. Maybe they have everything going for them. But is that really a story anyone wants to see? Your character must struggle, if not on the field, in their personal lives. A moral conflict your character sets out to solve must be present in the film or it will fall flat on its face. This can be seen in movies like Ron Howard’s racing drama Rush.
Real characters are flawed characters who take chances, gamble big like life is one big online casino, and often lose.
There is a reason some sports movies do better than others. Some sports movies simply aren’t believable. For example, Rollerball takes place in a dystopian future where the world is run by corporations. There are no wars, only Rollerball, a hyper-violent sport performed on a track in a circular cage. Now the goal of Rollerball is to tell a much bigger story than simply informing the audience about a sport but Rollerball not being grounded in reality leads the audience to think the film itself is ridiculous and unbelievable.
Win or Lose Story Always Comes First
Ultimately, if you tell your story well and build strong characters with complex moral conflicts your audience won’t care if the athlete you are telling a story about wins or losses. If they are the best in their field or if they are complete failures. The success of the character and the story comes in the moral conclusion of the film.
Rudy isn’t a hero because he is the best player on the field. He’s a hero because he worked hard, never gave up, and changed the minds of his fellow teammates. We don’t care he’s not a football legend. We care that he never stopped. Like Rudy, we know success is attainable if we don’t give up. That’s the true magic of any sports film.