As with most “Top #” lists, this is not an objective, exhaustive composite of the entire inventory of all tournaments ever. While I’ve made my rounds through a lot of fiction, I have not tread upon it all, and so my opinions are subject to differ depending on what I have or have not read/watched. On a similar note, I must clarify this article is talking specifically about classic-bracket tournaments, and not competitions in general. Ergo, things like The Hunger Games will not be represented, nor Harry Potter‘s Tri-Wizard Tournament, despite its name. In addition, some contests will have a tournament segment without being comprised entirely of tournament-style battle. In such cases, I will only be judging the quality of the tournament portion.
These will be going in no particular order.
**CONSIDER THIS THE SPOILER WARNING, THOUGH SOME OF THESE SERIES ARE WELL OVER A DECADE OLD**
The Duelist Kingdom Tournament
I can already hear the condemnation coming from Yu-Gi-Oh! fans across the cosmos. That’s right—in a series that is dominated by large, epic tournament scenes, I choose the first and most faulty one to place in this list. Battle City and all kindred events to follow after might have been cooler (and actually followed the rules of the card game), but none of them capture the original appeal as we got with the Duelist Kingdom Tournament, hosted by the Big Bad himself, Maximilian Pegasus. Again, as I reiterate from the introduction, I am not taking the entire DK arc into account—just the final battles near the end, as that was the only segment which followed a formal tournament setup with a single-elimination bracket.
The entirety of Yu-Gi-Oh! so far had been building up to this point, and delivers swiftly with several high-octane, heart-kicking twists in the script. Many cool new cards are played, friendships and rivalries are tested, a revenge story is flipped on its head, and Yugi goes mano-y-mano with the creator of modern Duel Monsters itself in a shadow game where multiple eternal souls are on the scales between victory and defeat. This is also our first time seeing a showdown between two wielders of Millennium artifacts. Even though later arcs might trump Duelist Kingdom in overall quality, DK sets the stage, tone, and expectations for the rest of the series.
The Hades Paradox Cup
This is probably the loosest entry on our list, as we rarely see other matches besides the ones in which Sora and company participate. I swear the world of Hercules (A.K.A. Mount Olympus and The Underworld) was added almost exclusively because it gives Kingdom Hearts an excuse to have half a dozen tournaments in each installment…which is okay, because they are one of the best parts of the franchise.
In Kingdom Hearts 2 specifically, The Hades Paradox Cup is the ultimate tournament, only available in the endgame. You are nearly required to be at a higher level than you’d need to actually complete the game, and the opponents therein range anywhere from standard enemies, to previously defeated bosses, to Disney and Final Fantasy characters of various difficulty. Hercules himself, Hades, Heartless, Nobodies, Squall Leonhart (Leon), Cloud, Tifa, Yuffie, and a whole menagerie of awesome opponents must be bested in order to reach the end and lay hold of the championship cup. Chances are you’re going to lose a few times.
It is, after all, fifty matches long.
The Chunin Exams
I debated a lot about putting this Naruto tournament in the lineup, mostly because it gets unceremoniously interrupted. However, the fights are some of the most memorable in the series, and the raw, personal appeal of the match-ups are more than enough to clear it of uncertainty. In this particular installment, I counted the preliminaries as well as the main tournament itself, even though the matches are a month apart from one another.
The Chunin Exams within the context of the show are a sort of graduation examination, required for fledgling Shinobi to rank-up to the titular level of “Chunin.” For the tournament portion of the exam, we are given several very personal battles between combatants, many of which begin or alter our perception of characters for the rest of the series. Hinata versus Neji brings us awareness of the inner strife of the Hyuga family, and gives Naruto a reason to form a personal vendetta against Neji, the strongest amateur ninja in the nation. Sakura versus Ino brings some much needed attention to the heroine of the series, who had been denied any significant character development for the first forty episodes. We get a taste of exactly how brilliant Shikamaru can be with his strategic adeptness. Then of course there’s Rock Lee versus Gaara, which still stands as one of the most popular battles in the entire series to date.
The Dark Tournament
Many people had their first exposure to the antics of Yu Yu Hakusho and it’s spirit detective, Yusuke Urameshi, during the golden age of Toonami. Well, not terribly far into the narrative, Yu Yu Hakusho departs from its original tone of solving weird, supernatural events and goes full-bore into a fighting manga/anime. This includes the introduction of one of the most notorious tournaments in the history of the medium.
Simply titled “The Dark Tournament,” Yusuke and his companions enter a tournament dominated by demons, where sixteen teams of five compete for supremacy and the granting of one ultimate wish of their choosing. The tournament itself was created and hosted by several mind-blowingly rich, corporate personalities. This tournament is infamous not only for the length, stature of its battles, and the finale where Yusuke must finally confront Younger Toguro, but because there was no regulation of rules whatsoever. Nearly every team blatantly cheats at some point, as instructed by the bigwigs upstairs, who are gambling and orchestrating which team is going to win and how. This makes it difficult for our heroes to fight fairly, since the odds are perpetually stacked against them.
They can’t give up, though, as one of the nefarious parties wants to use their wish to create a portal to the demon world. If there’s any event you must prevent at all costs, creating a open gateway into Hell is a pretty good contender.
The King of the Iron Fist Tournament
Sponsored and coincidentally won by a member of the Mashima family through all seven generations of the tournament, this competition has been made notorious through the Tekken franchise. While the tournament is an international affair open to nearly any martial artist who feels like showing up, it almost always boils down to the same final few opponents. The victor of the tournament is then given “ownership” of it until the time comes for a new champion to be decided.
This tournament was added less for the competition itself and more because of its history and dark underpinnings. Revenge stories run rampant through the character cast; some fighters are hunting monsters for use in gene-splicing to increase their own strength, and a family civil war goes back and forth between generations of the Mashima clan for constant superiority. On more than one occasion, the tournament has functioned only as a trap to lure out certain fighters for the nefarious agendas of people who creep in the darkness. The King of the Iron Fist is considered one of the most brutal and conspiratorial tournaments in video game lore.
Grand Mage Games
Fairy Tail has had a couple of tournaments among various other competitions, but nothing filled out the stature and lasting impact as a narrative catalyst so much as the Grand Mage Games. The GMG deserves a place on our lineup because not only does it serve the classic function of bracket elimination, but there are extracurricular, “surprise” events at the end of each of the five days of the tournament, awarding teams additional points which might forgive defeats in the arena. It’s these additional activities which really helped make this tournament shine among other entries, as we the viewers are able to see the whimsical spirit of the author behind the mini-games and the characters are placed into otherwise unusual and tricky situations, not always resolved by the mere capacity to destroy things. This tournament is also laudable for its surplus of cool and interesting new characters which get added to the cast.
As is becoming a theme in this list (and with the trope in general), the overall enjoyment of the tournament is accentuated by the presence of secondary agendas crisscrossing through the politics and shadows of the games. There is confusion among who is friend and enemy, and the inclusion of time-travel and ancient secrets tends to benefit most story arcs when done well.
The Vytal Festival
Roosterteeth’s animated series, RWBY is all the rage right now. Foreshadowed in the first season, the semester closes at Beacon Academy with a nation-wide tournament in the third season, with several other military schools participating from all across Remnant. While the Vytal Festival stands for much more culturally than just a bunch of students beating the tar out of each other, the fights are definitely the most outstanding part.
This tournament makes our list for multiple reasons. For starters, it has a variety of match styles, beginning with four-man team fights, and narrowing down to doubles, and finally singles. In addition, the stadium, also known as Amity Colosseum, has an arena of alternating and mismatched biomes, allowing for great variety in terrain for its competitors. Weather effects are regulated within each biome, going so far as to contain an artificial sun to help create a convincing environment.
But the Vytal tournament is fun for more than just its arena. It’s also just a ripe battlefield for high-octane, ludicrous combat, as well as multiple upsets in the plot as powerful forces move in the background, manipulating participants into hurting and even inadvertently killing other opponents for the sake of dismantling the sense of safety lauded by the headmasters. All of this is wrapped up with a double-down invasion of two formidable armies, plunging the world into chaos.
The Tenkaichi Budokai
Here it is! Dragon Ball, the original OG. There is perhaps no series more renown for its prestigious tournament appeal than Dragon Ball and its successors. While there are many tournaments that take place over the course of the story (The Cell Games, The Otherworld Tournament, The Universe Tournament), there’s only one which can be properly considered for this list. Now, the Tenkaichi Budokai might have been a bigger deal in Goku’s earlier years than after his victory against Piccolo, but it still never falls out of relevance. The Z-Fighters frequent this international tournament several times over the course of Dragon Ball, and it is the stage which has inspired so many contemporary series to try their own spin on the tournament trope. It is where Goku met many of his friends, tested himself and his rivals, learned who he was as a fighter, and overcame some of his greatest obstacles.
Even after the Z-Fighters reach power levels which normal humans could never hope to attain, the Tenkaichi Budokai is still a place of attendance for them up and through the Majin Buu saga. It is a breeding ground for conspiracy, backstories, camaraderie, and proving one’s own worth before an audience of one’s peers. Dragon Ball, before it was defined by things like over-the-top destruction, the prestigious concept of supersaiyans, and a misplaced stigma of episodes-long scream sessions, found its identity in this tournament. To this day, when long-time fans start dwelling on their most nostalgic moments from this series, you’re bound to hear a handful of events which occurred through the vehicle of the Tenkaichi Budokai.
If it wasn’t the first major tournament in anime, then it’s the only one anyone cares to remember. Anything which came before is inconsequential in comparison.