First conceived in 2009, season one of the ESPN 30 for 30 series was a celebration of ESPN's 30th anniversary. Thirty documentary films from thirty filmmakers deep dive into the stories that captivated millions over ESPN's tenure. They are widely and rightly regarded as some of the best sports documentaries on the market.
Think of the sports icons who fell, to those that should have risen higher and, perhaps most importantly, the ever-shifting relationship between sports and social politics. If anything stares you down in these documentaries, it's that the teams and individuals who play professional sports have the potential to unite or divide communities, with more than just their own hopes resting on their shoulders.
The success of the inaugural series and the wealth of material to mine saw ESPN produce a second volume of 30 for 30 documentaries, including a series of online shorts.
ESPN's 10 Best 30 For 30 Sports Documentaries Ranked
10. You don't know Bo: The Legend of Bo JacksonGetty Images
Directed by Michael Bonfiglio
Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson was one of those rare birds who made "Jack of all trades, master of none" look like the next best thing. He became as much a myth as a sportsman, having been named an All-Star in football and baseball, even though he never won a Super Bowl or World Series with his teams.
The "Bo Knows" Nike campaign was one of the greatest marketing campaigns an athlete could ask for, moulding Bo into a titan in the public eye. This documentary captures the legend of Bo Jackson, looking at the impact of impossible expectations and marketing on an athlete's career.
9. Bad BoysGetty Images
Directed by Zak Levitt
The Detroit Pistons of the '80s and early '90s. A volatile group of basketball players who were heroes for some, while others felt their wildness was irreconcilable with the professional game. Many believed they were willing to do anything to take the win, and this die-hard attitude garnered them their "Bad Boys" title and a tumultuous relationship with their fans.
Isiah Thomas was one of the greatest players in NBA history, his outward veneer often contrasting the toughness of his play. Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Joe Dumars were also ready for war in every game, while the vitality and fearlessness of Dennis Rodman early in his career were undeniable. Chuck Daly had a job on his hands, keeping this storm of characters and talent from descending into a motley crew, but he did so with panache.
The Pistons clinched two titles in 1989 and '90 amid the Lakers' and Celtics' years of dominance throughout the 1980s, and the documentary makes a steady case for recognition as a championship era in its own right.
8. Pony ExcessESPN+
Directed by Thaddeus D. Matula
The corruption prevalent in college football and college basketball during the '80s will give most people phantom indigestion, but Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, took it to new heights. Match results were on the up, with the best record of performance the team had ever had over four seasons. Behind the scenes, there were violations left, right and centre.
Bribes, payoffs, you name it. The sports teams were raking in vast amounts of money from sponsors, and many greedy fingers were in the pot. The consequence of this was the "death penalty" of college sports. A two-year suspension. The sanction took the team over 20 years to recover from serves as a cautionary tale to the college sports teams of the present.
7. The best that never wasESPN+
Directed by Jonathan Hock
Let's just say, it's a sobering watch. There's a running theme in the sports world that ethics, safeguarding, and procedure don't just go out of the window with college football recruitment, they get launched. Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964, Marcus Dupree was one of many students who were chewed up and spat out by a collegiate sports system.
Dupree was more than a talent. His ability united a town that was haunted by violence against the black community. You watch a minute of his tapes, and it's clear he could have been one of the greats. As a result, over 100 colleges approached his family during the recruitment process, many with deep pockets.
Dupree was pulled in suspect directions by family members and friends alike. Ill-advised by those around him and suffering from a series of injuries, Dupree was squeezed out of his future career and most of his earnings as a professional player. Sadly, he's but one of many young athletes who end up in such circumstances.
Directed by Daniel Gordon
The Hillsborough disaster was a harrowing day in the history of UK soccer. 97 people died, and 766 fans obtained injuries after a human crush ensued at a Liverpool v Nottingham Forest game in Sheffield, England, on April 15th, 1989.
Twenty-five years on, questions remain unanswered regarding the tragedy, but one thing is disturbingly clear throughout the documentary. Liverpool fans were never to blame. It's a brilliant documentary, that balances information and evidence with a powerful, true narrative that explores the events that came before, during and after the incident.
As the documentary unfolds, an unforgiving spotlight is shone on the police and authorities who made the calculated decision to cover up their own shortcomings by blaming Liverpool supporters for the tragedy. It is one of the best documentary films on the disaster and an emotional watch.
5. The UGetty Images
Directed by Billy Corben
Here, we have our "bad boys" of football. The documentary follows the success and controversies of the University of Miami's football team Miami Hurricanes in the '80s against the backdrop of a city shadowed by riots and racial tensions.
Coach Howard Schnellenberger had recruited players from all across Florida, including the ghettos and fielded a predominantly black team for the first time in the college's history and won four national titles between 1983 and 1991.
It's a compelling story of big egos, talent and success, told by those who knew the team best - those in it. Authentic is the best word to describe this documentary, and it's hard not to be charmed by the audacious team.
4. Without BiasGetty Images
Directed by Kirk Fraser
Without Bias follows Len Bias after the Celtics took him during the 1986 draft. Bias gets compared a lot in the film to Michael Jordan, with a lot of speculation by those who knew him from his earliest appearances on the court convinced he would have risen through the ranks to be one of the greats.
Bias's death only a day after his signing took the city of Boston by storm. The result of a cocaine overdose while drinking with friends in a college dorm, he died from heart failure at only 22 years old. Another sobering crown jewel in the ESPN 30 for 30 collections, examining what could've been and what never was.
3. The Two EscobarsGetty Images
Directed by Jeff Zimbalist
The Two Escobars is in position three, but would easily be higher if the competition wasn't so tight. The Two Escobars chronicles what is termed as "narco-soccer", that is a Colombian era when cocaine kingpins were laundering drug money through soccer clubs. Naturally, Pablo Escobar was one such kingpin and one of the most influential.
However, Pablo wasn't the only Escobar on the soccer scene. Andres Escobar, was an icon of Colombia's national team and the documentary investigates the tale of how the murder of these two men within the same year carved a lasting public image of Colombia on the world sports stage.
2. June 17th, 1994ESPN+
Directed by Brett Morgan
A U.S. Tennis Open, the FIFA World Cup, Rangers on Broadway, NBA and MLB championship games were all overshadowed by a White Ford Bronco being chased through Los Angeles by the police. Who else was in that car, but O.J. Simpson.
Possibly the most famous of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series, Brett Morgan covers the surreal events of June 17th, 1994, by splicing together footage from each event. The end result is a collage that echoes the zeitgeist of '90s America. Clever. Succinct. It packs a punch.
1.The Last DanceMandalay Sports Media
Directed by Jason Hehir
The number 1 spot is cinched by The Last Dance. A docuseries of epic proportions, its release in 2020 got many through the pandemic. Eight hours of prime interview and basketball footage spun together shows us the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 season, otherwise known as Michael Jordan's final title win, through a kaleidoscope of perspectives.
Atop Michael's individual achievements, the documentary explores the seedy underbelly of player contracts, the pressures of public scrutiny and the complex relationship between Michael, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. With talent and big characters, often comes big conflicts and the Chicago Bulls had their fair share of internal drama.
Ultimately, behind every great athlete chasing their hoop dreams, is a team that made it possible. The '90s era Bulls continue to mesmerise sports fans 20 years on and rightly so. Plenty dysfunctional behind the scenes, when they hit the court they were a well-oiled machine, and they were loved and hated for it. It's an immersive watch whether you're a basketball fan or not, which is the sign of a documentary done right.
While these documentaries didn't quite make the top 10, they're also well worth putting aside an hour for.
Marion Jones: Press Pause
Once one of the world's fastest women, Marion Jones' career was cut short when she was sent to prison for lying about taking performance-enhancing steroids.
Small Potatoes: Who killed the USFL
The rise and fall of the league that dared to challenge the NFL.
Muhammad and Larry
A heartbreaking account of Muhammad Ali's fateful fight against sparring partner Larry Holmes to reclaim the World Heavyweight title.
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks
The Indiana Pacers and New York's long-standing rivalry, explored through the eyes of Pacers star Reggie Miller.
Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies
Follow two teams whose rivalries in the '80s revitalised the NBA.