Perhaps what distinguishes manga from Western comics is its diverse genres. It's actually surprising that the sports genre is so extensively covered by the Japanese, even if in retrospect sports is a genre that makes a lot of sense (it's not like we don't have sports movies for example). Here is a list of what I think are the five most influential sports manga (some of which are older than me!) as well as a list of more modern titles.
Captain Tsubasa by Yoichi Takahashi - One could arguably make a case that Japan's participation in the recent World Cup is due to this particular title. At the very least, the Captain Tsubasa franchise has inspired more than a few professional soccer players. Captain Tsubasa follows the exploits of Tsubasa as he leads his soccer team to victory, starting off as a kid until he grows up to participate in the World Cup-like tournaments itself. The franchise is quite huge, spawning video games and numerous anime remakes. The early story arcs are easily the best episodes (and the history from which the sequels draw from) and Captain Tsubasa is an example of the idealistic hero who never gives up and wins the day in the end.
Ashita no Joe by Tetsuya Chiba - Pretty much like manga legend Osamu Tezuka, Tetsuya Chiba was decades ahead of its time when he wrote Ashita no Joe, a sports manga about boxing. This was pretty much a realistic piece of fiction and perhaps one of the most heartbreaking moments when the protagonist Joe accidentally kills his rival in a boxing match. There was even an actual funeral for the death of this manga character and Ashita no Joe has become part of Japan's zeitgeist in much the same way Rocky has become America's pop culture icon when you mention the sport boxing.
Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue (Viz) - One of the more "recent" titles in this list (save perhaps for Hajime no Ippo), Slam Dunk placed first in the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival in the list of top 10 manga. In the shadow of popular sports titles like Captain Tsubasa, which was aimed at kids and full of action and excitement, and Touch, which focused more on character drama, Slam Dunk distinguished itself with its mix of both elements, combining realism with comedy, action with drama. Pretty much like any other title in this list, Slam Dunk was adapted into an anime series and then the manga was reprinted in a deluxe edition with specific pages colored.
Touch by Mitsuru Adachi - Mitsuru Adachi's ability to write both shonen (boys) and shojo (girls) titles is evident in his series Touch. In fact, it's not readily a title I'd immediately slap the sports label on and reads more like a drama (and has been in fact adapted into a Japanese live-action drama). Mitsuru Adachi won the Shogakukan Manga Award for this title (along with his other series Miyuki) and is proof that characterization and story is just as important as action in a sports title. Touch starts out with twin brothers and the girl-next-door, with one of the brothers hard-working and into baseball while the other one is lazy and doesn't seem to be passionate about anything. That dynamic slowly changes however over the course of the story...
Hajime no ippo by Jyoji Morikawa - Let's put it this way: Hajime no Ippo began in 1990. It's currently in its 81st volume and still going strong. While not easily as recognizable as the other titles in the list, Hajime no Ippo is a boxing title that has tenacity and is quite accessible to modern readers. Hajime no Ippo starts out with Ippo, a high school student who frequently gets bullied. He eventually takes up boxing to become stronger but soon finds himself knee-deep into the sport.
Other Recommended Sports Manga:
- Major by Takuya Mitsuda - Another "generational" sports manga in the vein of Captain Tsubasa, Major surprisingly starts out tragically and is infused with elements that made manga in the 90's popular. It has recently been adapted into an anime series with its fourth season airing this year.
- Hikaru no Go by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata (Viz) - One of the more "original" ideas to have been released in recent years, Hikaru no Go transforms the otherwise droll game of Go into an exciting story featuring fantastical elements (a ghost) and compelling characters. Despite the supernatural element, this is still very much a "realistic" portrayal of the game.
- Prince of Tennis by Takeshi Konomi (Viz) - Whereas many sports titles based on real sports have taken on a serious tone, Prince of Tennis takes a step back and combines many modern sports manga elements with off-the-top action complete with unbelievable special moves. If you want to read a title where the good guys always win in the end despite the odds, Prince of Tennis is more appropriate for you.
- Eyeshield 21 by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata (Viz) - One of the most recent and successful sports titles, Eyeshield 21 treads the line between realism and lack thereof but continues to be underdogs in their own title. Great drama and great action is the winning formula of this title.
- Initial D by Shuichi Shigeno (Tokyopop) - Popular in the arcades, Initial D has an interesting and very Japanese take on racing.