The Winter 2021 anime season is a strange one when it comes to sports series. With three out of the four being anime-original stories, and all of them featuring relatively niche sports, the bishonen character designs for their charismatic and highly athletic male leads point towards a desire to generate shipping among fans. These premiering series are each throwing their hat in the ring for best ship, relying on sports anime's strong female fanbase to generate speculative buzz.
The four sports series of the season feature the skateboarding anime SK8 the Infinity, Skate-Leading Star -- which invented team figure-skating --, a group of beautiful surfers in Wave!! Surfing Yappe!! and finally, the only novel adapted anime, 2.43: Seiin High School Boys Volleyball Team. With sports anime being no stranger to having shippers in their fandom, these new series could be trying to capitalize on success similar to that of Free! Uniquely, each series has a different type of relationship worth shipping, but which one of the four does it best? The answer may surprise you.
SK8 The Infinity: The "Best Friend" Ship
When it comes to the shipping pedigree of its production team, SK8 The Infinity takes the cake, with the director of Free! and Banana Fish, and the writer of Code Geass, it almost guarantees an entertaining homoerotic story. The two leads have great chemistry and are incredibly likable characters. Plus, the supporting characters provide extra drama and some potential ships as well.
Reki and Langa -- the two leads of SK8 -- form the series main ship, and there isn't much to dislike about their relationship. Their cute interactions are devoid of jealousy and teen angst and even forgoes any good old fashioned rivalry. Reki and Langa share a genuine love of skateboarding and support each other's efforts sincerely. Reki's restless enthusiasm and Langa's quiet stubbornness are perfectly complementary.
Still, there are times where their relationship looks so pure that it feels wrong to ship them. While imagining the two protagonists as more than friends seems less likely at the moment, things could change as the series develops their relationship further. Even as a friendship, their bantering antics and the anime's quality combine to make Reki and Langa one of the most popular ships this season.
Skate-Leading Star: The "Rivalry" Ship
As Skate-Leading Star’s animation focuses less on the actual sport, the only thing keeping the anime going is its various character relationships. Compared to SK8’s refreshingly supportive friendship, Skate-Leading Star features more traditional rivalries. Kensai -- the series' protagonist -- seems to have a fairly one-sided rivalry with Reo but is invested enough to keep that flame burning. However, since Reo is portrayed as very obtuse, the situation could change if their issues turn out to be a misunderstanding.
The more exciting rivalry in the series is between Kensai and Itsuki Kiriyama -- the vice-captain of his team. Itsuki resents Kensai for quitting figure skating because he knows Kensai is wasting his talent. Itsuki is also the only person who says he liked Kensai’s skating in Episode 1. It is clear that Itsuki truly appreciates Kensai’s talent, but his tsundere personality stops him from admitting it. Plus, the tsundere character meets naive hero pairing is certainly commonplace in anime.
Unfortunately, the Skate-Leading Star's over-use of stereotypes in place of actual character development hinders most of the relationships portrayed. While there is still hope for improvement, the series’ lackluster start is enough to dissuade many shippers.
Wave!! Surfing Yappe!!: The "Love at First Sight" Ship
Wave! Surfing Yappe! has the least fanfare out of all four of the sports anime this season but might be guilty of queerbaiting in the beginning. One day, the protagonist Masaki Hinaoka sees experienced surfer Shou Akitsuki’s beautiful surfing stance and immediately falls in love -- with surfing. The scene lingers on Shou’s face instead of his surfing, and Masaki's inner dialogue proclaims that he felt fate the moment he saw Shou.
Throughout the first two episodes, Masaki blushes whenever he sees Shou, now motivated to learn how to surf like him despite being unable to swim and having no prior interest in surfing before. Building fans' hopes up more, we see Shou save Masaki from drowning in a scene very reminiscent of The Little Mermaid.
As the series' dives more into surfing, it begins to feel more engaging and the characters more relatable. The friendship depicted in Wave!! is almost as earnest and supportive as the one in SK8, and the animation also does a great job portraying surfing in an appealing and informative way. Though Masaki and Shou's relationship could yet develop, it's unclear if it will fall under queerbaiting or ship teasing with solid LGBTQ+ representation.
2.43: Seiin High School Boys Volleyball Team: The "Reunion" Ship
2.43: Seiin High School Boys Volleyball Team is the only sports anime this season adapted from a novel, and it shows in its reliable depictions of character psychologies and naturalistic dialogues, which both add to the realism of the series. More than enough drama is infused into the story happening every week to fuel fans' imaginations for possible ships.
Kimichika Haijima, the series' protagonist, is a very talented volleyball setter, but his strict demeanor almost drove his former teammate to suicide. His childhood friend Yuni Kuroba is a wing spiker who easily gets nervous during games. Kimichika and Yuni had a falling out during middle school due to Yuni’s self-doubt and Kimichika’s high expectations for Yuni. The two meet again in Seiin High School and try to get their team to the nationals.
2.43 moves at a lightning pace to set up the protagonists’ relationship. Within two episodes Yuni and Kimichika had created a volleyball team, went to a tournament, lost a game and had a falling out. But that's just the prologue to the actual story which begins when they meet again in high school. Kimichika still has high hopes for Yuni and becomes frustrated when he sees Yuni not living up to his potentials. In truth, Yuni is only pretending to play badly to lure Kimichika back into playing volleyball.
2.43: Seiin High School Boys Volleyball Team Is The Most Shippable
Kimichika and Yuni care deeply for each other, and both thought their presence would make the other unhappy because of their past, so they kept their distance. Kimichika loves volleyball but quits because he thought he had over-pressured Yuni. While Yuni feels guilty about Kimichika quitting, so he desperately wants him to come back to volleyball.
Ultimately, the sacrifice they are each willing to make for each other -- even in detriment to their mental health -- elevates the Yuni x Kimichika ship as the best sports anime ship of Winter 2021.