Few genre films follow the same beat-by-beat screenwriting path as sports movies—the rags to riches story of an athlete or team overcoming the odds and making it all the way to fame and glory. Whether it’s based on a true story of a major league championship or a made-up yarn about a peewee football team, comedy or drama, the elements nearly always remain the same.
Underdog sports movies are a pure form of storytelling—your characters have a strong goal, a clear arc, and the conflict of the narrative is quite literally a conflict. People are primed to root for underdogs already—its in our DNA—so follow these simple steps and the story will tell itself and engage the audience without you having to break a sweat.
1. Introduce the Underdog
First off, we have to get acquainted with who we’re going to be rooting for, whether it’s a down-on-his-luck athlete or coach, or a whole team of misfits. We meet Rocky when he is a hired thug for a mid-level mobster. Coach Gordon Bombay starts off The Mighty Ducks with a DUI. And that’s a Disney movie!
2. Show the Suck
You can’t just tell us who’s the underdog—you have to show us. We need to see the bumbling and the fumbling and how poorly the team works together, and that often means including an epic fail moment early on in the script. If it’s the story of a natural-born talent, we need to see why they’re not living up to their potential, whether it’s addiction or shady circumstances and characters holding them back.
3. Set the Goals
The end of the movie should be telegraphed way in advance, with your underdog protagonist(s) starting the new season or setting the date for the big match or tournament. They’ll play their first game, terribly, and see just how much work they have ahead of them. This is a great time to introduce the opposition as well, the team or athlete your heroes will face off against. They should not only be the best, but also total jerks with smug smirks we can’t wait to see wiped off their faces.
4. Bring in the Surprise Star
Most sports movies have a little deus ex machina, usually in the form of a sports prodigy from a very unlikely place. Usually they don’t even play the same sport, and are antisocial misanthropes that don’t play well with others for a reason. Little Giants had Devon Sawa, the Bad News Bears had Jackie Earle Haley and Tatum O’Neal.
5. Make ‘Em Better
The surprise star athlete should be the catalyst for your team to start cohering and scoring their first wins. The main ingredient your characters needed before now was confidence, and by nurturing it, your story will grow along with them.
6. Make ‘Em Bond
Suddenly that antisocial wunderkind is a little less anti and a little more social. Rather than turning on one another, the team is using their newfound confidence and bonding together. Usually they’ll explicitly show this with a sing-along in the locker room or on the bus, or like in The Replacements, in jail. They don’t have to sing necessarily—in The Mighty Ducks, the team just had to quack at their principal in unison.
7. Throw in a Little Romance
Your script will need a B-plot, usually one that isn’t sports related. The best way is to add a little romance, either with the tomboyish girl player on the team, or the coach with one of the kids’ moms, or the sports league official. Rocky had Adrian, and as such he had something more to fight for than just a championship belt.
Okay, now your team is hot, they’re winning, or your athlete is kicking ass in training, and everyone’s getting a little nookie on the side. Your story is switching gears and ramping up and you’re running out of pages and screentime. Time for a montage. Let’s see everyone progressing a little more with each cut, and feel free to throw in some shots of your scowling villains, so we remember how much we hate them. Your montage can be simple—one of the most effective scenes of all time is Rocky’s jogging through the streets of Philadelphia.
9. Kick Off the Big Game
You’re already at the big climax—that was fast! There’s lots of hype, lots of nerves, and lots of dramatic stakes for all of our characters. This is the culmination of all their hard work, and of course they’re up against the jerks from Act One. Sometimes it looks like our heroes are winning, but then it seems like they’re losing. Usually it all comes down to one big play….
10. Wrap It Up with Lessons Learned
Either your team wins, or they lose, just barely. (Unless you’re a sadist and your team didn’t even come close, or your athlete was arrested for cheating.) But that’s okay if they lost, some of our favorite athletes like Rocky and the Bad News Bears didn’t end the movie with a win. But it’s key that they learned some lessons along the way—whether it be teamwork, inner strength, self-respect, the power and glory of love, etc.—and that the previous nine steps weren’t all for nothing.