I never envisioned myself to be a sports fan but lately, most of my anime viewing and manga reading is centered around sports. Lately my big three are Eyeshield 21 (American football), Hajime no Ippo (boxing), and Major (baseball).
What's interesting is that despite belonging to the same genre, the good titles remain distinctively unique. Eyeshield 21, for example, manages to inject slapstick comedy and surrealism yet remain serious during the times it needs to be serious. Hajime no Ippo certainly has its laughable moments but it's serious and down-to-earth all throughout. Major, on the other hand, has this consistently flawed protagonist and for awhile, was concentrating more on human drama than sports drama.
Which brings me to my point. Most (if not all) stories contain drama. In sports anime/manga however, there's two kinds of drama that predominantly stands out. I call them human drama and sports drama. Human drama is when there's something going on outside of the game (whatever their sport may be) -- it could be an injury that prevents them from playing, peer pressure of family responsibilities that prevents them from participating in a game, or even flat-out social relationships. Sports drama, on the other hand, is excitement that's related to the game during a game -- a missed shot in basketball, the psychological pressure in needing to sink the ball into the goal, the support from your teammates that lends you strength to perform magnificent feats, etc. Some titles will balance out the two while others will use one more predominantly than the other.
Captain Tsubasa, for example, while contains human drama elements, is more of a sports drama title. The focus is on the games and the "special moves" the protagonist performs. Slam Dunk usually shifts back and forth, with a few consecutive episodes focusing on human drama before shifting high gear into sports drama (and you know it's sports drama when several episodes/chapters are devoted to one single game). I caught a few episodes of Dear Boys and it's not my cup of tea simply because I found it had too much human drama and too little sports drama (or rather executed the latter poorly).
To those unfamiliar with those titles, I'll use a Western example: TV wrestling (whether it's TNA or WWE). My media class in high school mentioned TV wrestling as a man's soap opera. And in certain ways, it's true because it has lots of drama (and formulaic drama at that). Human drama occurs when there's conflict outside of a match (usually happens when the wrestlers are talking). It could be taunting an opponent, betraying them while they're in the middle of a speech, an off-screen romance, antagonizing the manager, etc. Sports drama, on the other hand, is the reasons why wrestling matches are long and why the wrestlers have "signature moves". It occurs when wrestlers manage to revive before the three-count, or usually breaking out of a submission when the crowd is cheering them on. To me, the sports drama in TV wrestling is a bit lacking. Sure, the wrestlers are performing dangerous stunts but the problem with live television is that you don't have the benefits of cinema, everything from using slow-motion, flashback, or even a simple good close-up. The tools TV wrestling seems to have is the camera rerun and crowd participation.
Of course the other thing I like about sports anime/manga is the fact that the story arcs are finite and easily identifiable. One game is usually a story arc with a beginning, rising action, climax, and epilogue.