"Challengers" is changing the game

June, 2024

For decades, sports movies have followed certain plot beats. A typical story might go like this: a young man dreams of becoming a baseball star. He tries out for his school’s team but it’s much harder than expected. He works diligently and makes it in the end, leading his team to the championship finals. When they win, he kisses his girlfriend in the middle of the court and his teammates carry him off to the blaring tune of “We Are The Champions.”

When the end goal for players in most sports movies is to be as strong and successful as possible, it makes for good television, but certainly not a nuanced story. However, sports films today seem to be shifting in a different direction, often by relying less on the same few storylines and excessive motivational messaging.

An older film that exemplifies the typical sports movie plot is “Rudy,” which centers around high school student Rudy Ruettiger who dreams of becoming a football player at Notre Dame University. Although he faces financial and personal obstacles, Rudy is eventually able to transfer to Notre Dame, but decides to quit when he realizes that he is not allowed a starting position on the team. After a conversation with a friend and former player, Rudy realizes that he shouldn’t give up so easily and leads the team to victory in their final game.

This victory, although extravagant, does not seem undeserved. Viewers have seen how far Rudy has come and are almost certainly rooting for him by the end. Even though he was backed by nothing but his own perseverance, he still achieved the ultimate victory. But this is a very idealized portrayal of the life of a student athlete, following the incredibly common tropes of the underdog and their crucial success in the final match, both of which are tried and true in television but have become too predictable. Of course, it must be acknowledged that “Rudy” is geared towards a slightly younger audience, so its complexity and depth must, to an extent, be limited. However, this limitation does even less to draw in the teenage audience the film hopes to attract. The unimaginable and unlikely success in “Rudy” almost kills the movie’s motivational message as it eventually becomes too overly inspirational to be genuinely relatable past sentimental appeal.

This isn’t the case for some newer sports films, especially not for the recent hit “Challengers,” which centers around the intertwining journeys of three tennis players: Tashi, Art, and Patrick, who meet while in high school and continue to encounter each other throughout their adult lives. The movie explores the multi-faceted romantic relationships between these three complex individuals, the aftermath of a career-ending injury for Tashi versus a successful recovery for Art, and the unpredictable nature of an athlete’s life and profession. In the end, the three players do not regain everything they have lost but keep moving forward anyway.

In “Challengers,” the life of an athlete is not depicted in as clear-cut a way as in “Rudy.” There is no initial setback, initial success, critical setback, and final victory, but rather every success is somehow followed by failure and every failure by success. Tashi is so deeply obsessed with tennis that her injury completely breaks her. Patrick has a bright start but ends up a failed professional. Art pushes himself to the point where he just wants to retire. This movie shows the dangers of obsession with a sport in a way that most sports movies do not. The characters’ determination is not always rewarded with success, which, no matter how painful, is much more realistic. Their relationships and lives are intertwined with their sport and become more complex because of it — something student athletes can certainly relate to as they juggle sports with the rest of their lives.

Unlike “Rudy,” “Challengers” has a higher age rating and therefore more freedom in terms of depth and complex storytelling. For generations, teenagers have begged to be seen and taken seriously, to be treated as mature and capable. Movies like “Challengers” that don’t shy away from the realities of lasting pain and failure in the sports world offer an alternative for the plethora of feel-good sports movies like “Rudy” that already exist. The success of “Challengers” points to a new, more mature market for sports movies that will likely be capitalized on in the future, a move away from the over-optimism and perfect victories in older sports films and towards more relatable representations.

At PHS, student athletes are forced to balance many different challenges to keep up with the school’s intense academic climate, which makes it difficult to absorb the idealized representations displayed in older sports films. According to data collected by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the 2022–2023 season, only about 6.6 percent of high school athletes go on to play at Division 1 schools. A study done by Ohio State University in 2017 also found that only approximately 0.023 percent of high school athletes become professionals. The chance of failure is so much greater than the chance of success that it’s easy for student athletes to become disillusioned when comparing their futures to the impressive careers characters their age frequently end up having in movies.

New films like “Challengers” help to counter this unrealistic perspective. By depicting injury, emotional struggle, and failure, these movies combine sports with reality into a much more believable narrative. For hard-working student athletes, this balance is a refreshing break from the standard success story championed by older sports films.