The 5 Greatest Sports Documentaries of All Time

On February 28, 2015 Showtime aired Kobe Bryant’s Muse, a documentary that took a look at the past, present, and future of one of the best basketball players of all time in an attempt to understand who he really is and what truly fuels his desire for greatness. Never before had Bryant been so open and forthcoming about himself, and despite the surprise that many must have felt to see this side of Kobe, it shouldn’t actually be that much of a shock. After all, it’s the price you pay to make a great documentary.

Some of the best sports films ever are done in this format. Documentaries resonate with the viewer on a deeper level because they focus on real-life individuals. With that comes an immediate connection to the material. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever gone through the same experiences as the main character in the picture because, in the end, it’s not about that. It’s about how you feel when you see them succeed or fail, or what it means to you when they go through joy or heartache.

Films in general have the power to move you. But documentaries, they have the power to inspire change. With that, these are the pictures we feel represent the top five sports documentaries of all time.

1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Director: Seth Gordon
Release date: 2007

It may seem a bit unconventional to put a film about video games on a list of great sports documentaries, but, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is so much more than a movie about gaming enthusiasts. What Seth Gordon does with this 2007 documentary is present a picture of what it means to strive for greatness. As outsider Steve Wiebe attempts break the World Record for Donkey Kong, and in the process dethrone video game legend Billy Mitchell, we’re thrust into a world that few knew existed — competitive gaming.

This doc is funny and sad. It’s eccentric and bizarre. It’s frustrating and compelling. How far will one person go to be the best, and what lengths will the best go to ensure his or her place in history? In the end, that idea is the true essence of  The King of King: A Fistful of Quarter.

2. Dogtown and Z-Boys

Director: Stacy Peralta
Release date: 2001

Directed by Stacy Peralta, an original member of the Zephyr skating team, the award-winning Dogtown and Z-Boys is a movie about the cultural revolution of skateboarding. These guys changed the sport forever in the 1970s by challenging conventional wisdom, and bringing their surfing skills to the street.

The Z-Boys pushed the envelope, and perfected their skills in the empty pools of Venice and Santa Monica. Their energy, fire, and desire to push the limits made these teenagers stars. Narrated by Sean Penn and filled with old b-roll footage, vintage photos of the team, and current interviews, Dogtown and Z-Boys shows how a group of teenage surfers sparked a major change in the skateboarding landscape.

3. The Endless Summer

Director: Bruce Brown
Release date: 1966

Have you ever wished that summer could last forever? That’s what director Bruce Brown tackles in the 1966 documentary, The Endless Summer. This film follows surfers Michael Hynson and Robert August as they navigate the world in search for the perfect wave. But what this picture really does is introduce the world to the culture of surfing.

Surfing is more than just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. And what made this documentary connect with a wider audience was because of the personal manner in which it was shot. As famed film critic Roger Ebert stated in his review of the film:

If the film itself offers exactly what it promises — 91 minutes of wish fulfillment — the manner of its filming must offer the same thing for professional filmmakers. Shunning the tons of equipment ordinarily taken along on location, Brown used only what he could carry. The beautiful photography he brought home almost makes you wonder if Hollywood hasn’t been trying too hard.

This sounds a lot like what’s going on in today’s entertainment industry. Perhaps, The Endless Summer’s ability to showcase “what could be,” is exactly what continues to make the film so timeless. That, and the breathlessly iconic one sheet helps sum up this movie in one word: beautiful.

4. When We Were Kings

Director: Leon Gast
Release date: 1996

Leon Gast’s 1996 Academy Award-winning documentary, When We Were Kings chronicles one of the most important sporting events in history: “The Rumble in the Jungle.” This 1974 heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire was more than just a boxing match, it was a spectacle unlike anything ever seen before. Ali’s charm, confidence, and swagger is on full display in this documentary that contains original footage from 1974.

This picture also showcases the cultural effect and controversial personality that made Ali such a fascinating individual. In this documentary, Ali says to the media, “I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m strong, and I can’t be beat.” That speech pretty much sums up this documentary verbatim; it’s just that good.

5. Hoop Dreams

Director: Steve James
Release date: 1994

There can be no discussion about sports documentaries without the inclusion of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams. This film follows two inner-city basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, through their high school years, as they attempt to improve their skills and use the sport to better their lives. The goal for each? College scholarships and perhaps, one day, a future in the NBA.

Hoop Dreams is a powerful, moving, touching, heartbreaking, and hopeful piece of cinema that borders on a sociological examination of the struggles that young athletes of the lower class face. It was Roger Ebert’s belief that,”Hoop Dreams, however, is not only a documentary. It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and expose, journalism and polemic. It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.