Since the very first black-and-white silent films, there have been depictions of sports. From Charlie Chaplin’s The Champion (1915) to 1930s sports comedies featuring aviation to baseball, there’s long been a definite market for sports films.
However, sports documentaries have been slower to take hold. Until the early 2000s, most sports documentaries were utilitarian, telling the story of improbable underdogs or unforgettable athletes. Hard-hitting peeks into the brutal realities, and even the dark side of the world’s most beloved athletes, haven’t been par for the course… until recently.
Today, Netflix isn’t just the world’s largest video streaming platform. In the past decade, the company has taken on sports documentaries, ranging from in-depth profiles on (anti?)heroes like Michael Jordan to the little-known world of cubing. These projects, piggy-backing on the advent of sports betting in the US, aren’t just challenging the perception fans have of athletes—but of the drive to compete as a whole.
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The Carter Effect (2017)
Though he retired from the NBA in 2020, pundits are still waiting for the next Vince Carter. Known for his high-flying abilities and mastery of the dunk, he gave analysts, fans, and NBA officials something to chew on with each game.
Today, players that can deliver on technical skill and flash tend to take up the media’s attention—as well as oddsmakers’. With a few resident superstars and a fresh wave of rookie talent each year, pundits stay on the lookout for players like Carter. Each October, experts providing NBA betting odds for the regular season and playoffs carefully study players who have an almost super-human effect on their own team and the crowd.
Few documentaries successfully cover this sort of single-season, otherworldly impact like director Sean Menard. In this case, Menard also had help from LeBron James’ production company, Uninterrupted.
The Playbook: A Coach’s Rules for Life (2020)
This docuseries forgoes the in-depth dive of a character like Vince Carter and instead covers five leading coaches. Much like pundits are apt to dive into the world of star players on a meteoric rise, they also carefully follow the coaches responsible for grooming such excellence.
This series covers coaches Doc Rivers of the NBA, Jill Ellis of the US Women’s National Team for soccer, José Mourinho of European club soccer (current coach for Tottenham Hotspur), Patrick Mouratoglou of the WTA (and coach of Serena Williams), and Dawn Staley of the WNBA.
The Last Dance (2020)
Few athletes have been able to brand themselves quite like Michael Jordan. However, this mega-popular miniseries from Netflix and ESPN re-cast the legend like never before. Not only did the documentary chronicle his most infamous years with the Chicago Bulls, but it isn’t afraid of incorporating the other personalities at play during that time.
A must-watch for any basketball fan, this series hasn’t just accrued critical acclaim—it’s also received its fair share of backlash from other players depicted in the series. For example, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, players who stared alongside Jordan, have come forward to claim the series took liberties in depicting Jordan’s leadership skills.
Despite this, the miniseries won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction series.
The Speed Cubers (2020)
Though speedcubing, a sport that requires participants to solve Rubik’s Cubes at lightning speed, may not have much visibility around the world, this documentary commands attention. Not only are the two main characters, speedcubing pros Max Parks and Felix Zemdegs, endearing and genius, but the competition itself is a new world for many sports fans.
The documentary has since been shortlisted for the Academy Awards for its depth, texture, and complexity afforded to those depicted in the game. In the future, maybe director Sue Kim could handle the MJ biopic.
Unlike most other sports documentary projects, Losers takes a dive into the mentality behind major losses. The series covers eight professional athletes who lost it all at the peak of their careers.
For example, there’s a profile on the infamous Jean van de Velde meltdown from the 1999 British Open—still one of the most famous moments in golf history. But there are other moments in which top athletes don’t choke, like the tale of figure skater Surya Bonaly, whose talent wasn’t in question as much as the moral ethics of those judging her.
Though it may not deliver on that big win, Losers is the honest, bitter look that pundits don’t report following a major competition.