I was watching a Sports! anime the other day, like one does, and something really odd happened. Something that almost never happens. The main characters’ team was up against a team that was much less experienced and had a lot less funding but were working really hard. But we didn’t really know them. It was clear that I still had to root for the home team. However, that meant rooting against the underdog.

Now I know why that almost never happens. It was tough! Even with minimal development in an anime that isn’t that great at the emotional stuff, I immediately felt protective of this little team. I thought maybe they could tie. Or 2 out of three so that they could win at least one. Of course, that didn’t happen. It wouldn’t have made any sense for the new team to win. But still, a little part of me wanted them to.

we don’t see enough sports garters…

That’s because anime, and really all fiction in general ever, has conditioned me to root for the underdog. It’s one of the oldest and most widespread tropes out there. And it’s a bit odd. We don’t really do that in real life. Unless we have a personal investment, we usually root for those favoured to win.

I know that one of the common theories is that this trope is so ubiquitous because the audience often sees themselves as underdogs. We all have doubts and insecurities and we want stories that will tell us that we’ll prevail regardless of that.

And this may be doubly true for anime fans who often self-represent as introverted nerds with bad social skills. Despite the fact that most of the ones I have had the pleasure to talk to were perfectly great people.

or perhaps lovely is a better word

Still, taking that into consideration. Coupled with just how bad the public image of Otakus is in Japan were most of the anime is written. And it makes sense that the overwhelming majority of anime has us cheering for the little guy going up against insurmountable odds while surrounded by seemingly more talented people.

To the point where I have trouble rooting against the underdog even when the stronger guy earned their place, is a really great guy and is the protagonist.

However, my question is, did the audience really influence art into giving us stories we see ourselves in or the art create the audience. What I mean by that is that the rise of the underdog story is a very useful narrative. It inherently allows for more conflict and obstacles than having a hero already favoured to overcome everything easily. And like I said, it has been around for a long long looong , time. Even before we were writing stories down, we were telling each other about the kid out of nowhere who suddenly and completely unexpectedly overcame everything to become king or god or something.

I didn’t say anything about carving

For many generations now, pretty much everyone in the world has grown up on tales of the underdog hero. So it’s pretty natural that most of us will end up seeing ourselves as the underdogs. After all, that’s who the story is about.

It sort of creates an unbreakable cycle. Audiences identify with what they see in the media they consume. Media emanates what the audiences identify with. And I think, somewhere along the line, our sympathy for the underdog has created a sort of contempt for the prodigy.

Like if all you are told about a character is that they are rich, attractive and really good at everything they do, you kind of expect them to be the antagonist. And even when they’re really nice, you still think they’ll at least be a rival or something.

…or something

All that in itself is interesting enough. Well to me at least. But what really made me think about it, is that there’s a shift. We are starting to see more self-assured and talented protagonists. My beloved anime sports teams are getting experience and climbing up in the ranks so they have to go up against opponents that are objectively weaker. More and more, anime is deviating from the underdog trope or at least soften it.

This may be because anime has become generally accepted and the old idea that anime fans are all losers just doesn’t really resonate with everyone like it used to. A more diverse audience creates a greater variety of protagonists? Or is it that the anime industry itself is expanding so much that they feel like they should start cultivating a wider audience?

Maybe it’s a little of both. Maybe it’s neither. Still, it seems like we are moving to a point where we won’t necessarily feel compelled to root for anyone just because they are the underdog. And that feels kind of exciting to me.

16 thoughts

  1. Tell me which SPORTS series this is please. I am genuinely curious because the two I’m watching this season are definitely underdog rising to the top sort of series. It’s almost annoying at this point, because while I love sports… the underdog is so heavily overused. It’s very rarely interesting, at this point. Or I might just be burnt out from it lol.

    1. Let’s see, I was actually thinking about a few series. To The Top where Karasuno is now one of the top schools in the country, Ace of Diamond where they have always been a very strong team, Prince of Tennis where they almost never loose and Bamboo Blade where Tamaki is a prodigy that wins almost all the time despite not really caring about kendo

  2. “introverted nerds with bad social skills”

    Reading my mind again, are you?

    There’s a genre of anime where the protagonist is nice, overpowered, and super attractive from the start. “Irregular at Magic High” comes to mind. Every antagonist they face is an underdog.

    Most of our underdogs don’t stay that way. They go thru a process whereby over the course of the show they become the overdog. Training or discovering secret powers or finding powerful friends or just psychological maturity. That’s part of the fantasy. Everybody thinks of themselves as an underdog but nobody wants to stay that way. That’s a trope as old as storytelling.


  3. Great post and insight. It seems ironic to me that society roots for the underdog in entertainment, but tend to steer otherwise in reality. But I agree, I see myself as an underdog at times, so those scenes resonate with me.

  4. In giving away what will be a future review for something, I was shocked to see one of a few times where a sports like series wasn’t about the underdog because the time in question won the championship and in this season have to defend their title while a new group of rookie as presented as the villains. This is IGPX, Mecha stock car racing and I always knew that a show/anime/manga could follow recent champions during the next season, but they never do.

    Your article is great, Irina. I guess all people are the little man in some way and just want to see that little man achieve on screen. It also goes with a lot of themes that stories stick to. The larger empire has a monopoly and it’s the rag tag group of heroes that must save the day. No one wants to hear that empires side of the story despite the fact that people don’t see that theme in real life and accept reality for what it is.

    Maybe I pushed that one out too fast.

    1. Thank you Scott,; That anime sounds great – I’m looking forward to your post.

      I also think we relate to the little guy. Heck I think even kings and presidents see themselves as the little guy.

  5. I saw a tv show about rooting for a team once. Apparently subconsciously we will always choose, even if we don’t know them, we are prone to root for teams because of small connections, which can be as simple as them having softer eyes or wearing your favourite colour or like you mentioned being the underdog.

    We don’t always need Underdog stories but I think they can be a great measuring tool. Say in your situation you felt more keen to see the Underdog team do well as the one you saw across the series.. perhaps that can show creators they need to do more team building add more personality or write in “beach episodes” where people share so we can identify with them more. Maybe a test audience can reveal there needs to be more spirit instead of just victories. By having heroes face off against underdogs we can learn how to make us still root for our main guys and we can get different stories.

    I do think most of us will identify with the underdog buut with anime becoming more mainstream we also find a platform that shows us.. good on you for being a fan. At actual sports matches for example people rarely root for the underdog. Their home town sure, the one who one last year yes.. but never does a soccer team get support for being the underdog….yet in Sports MOVIES (Western) we are also stuck to the underdog again.
    So I don’t think we will lose the Underdog trope all that soon even by becoming mainstream. I think that because we can voice ourselves so much better now we more so learn to tell other stories.. by taking risks and putting heroes against underdogs, and write new and more original stories. At the same time we also don’t feel as little anymore.. So I think it also shows anime fans are becoming a bit more proud and confident! Regardless of what it is.. I think it’s a good change

    1. I don’t think so either. It’s a fiction staple. But the slight adjustments may be indicative of an anthropological shift. Or maybe not. Could just be a fad

  6. There are far more peons in the world than talented superstars (although personally I’ve known more than one “peon” who is actually spectacularily talented but had to work for a living and so did not have the opportunities to express such). That’s just the way it is. All three of the DiMaggio brothers played baseball. Only one became a household name. So the audience of underdogs is pretty much, by definition, larger. This trope, as you say, is older than anime and seems to be pretty worldwide. You can toss the “poor girl who marries the prince” in there, too, as the old female version.

    Things certainly are changing. I know at least here in America, this generation of young people behaves as if their children were born perfect and the center of their universe. Not saying that’s bad, it just is. And if you’ve been raised thinking you are the most wonderful thing in the universe – then you might identify with a protagonist who has had their every need and desire met, every opportunity, training, etc. and who, of course, deservedly, wins or succeeds at whatever they are doing. Do you suppose that’s what’s happening? The audience changes – the stories change?

    1. Well yeah the average population is by definition the norm but average is not underdog. The least likely to succeed is just as rare as the most likely.
      3 DiMaggios played baseball! That’s amazing!

        1. You just need to widen your average range. Then you can fit like 89% of the population in there!
          If you want to be more depressed maybe it’s just that 5% are really really smart and pulling up the average and actually 70% of the population are below…

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