ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series started in 2009 and immediately changed the sports landscape for good. A genre long-defined by HBO’s also-great sports documentaries, ESPN put its massive power behind telling sports stories that went well beyond the TV contracts the network had and the highlights aired on SportsCenter. The results in 2009 were immediate, with six consecutive Tuesdays in October and November yielding films about Wanye Gretzky’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, the Colts abruptly leaving Baltimore and the tragic death of Len Bias.
In the years since, the network has gone on well past its initial 30 films, spawning 30 for 30 Presents, dozens of 30 for 30 shorts and a podcast of the same name. Given the wealth of great stories told by the series over the years, it can be difficult to know where to start with a decade-long exploration of incredible and sometimes-forgotten moments in sports history. With three volumes completed, a fourth in the works, and a highly-acclaimed miniseries about the Trial of OJ Simpson to its credit, there’s a lot to choose from, so we’re ranking our ten favorites.
No 30 for 30 podcasts or shorts or OJ here. Just some of the best original, full-length sports documentaries ever made, ranked.
10) Four Falls Of Buffalo
For a large region of New York State, this 30 For 30 is a painful but sweet reminder of what could have been for the Buffalo Bills in the ’90s. For the rest of the world, it shines a light on a football dynasty that never quite found glory. The K-Gun era Bills were ahead of their time in many ways, but saw defeat in four straight Super Bowls. The first was the most painful, a last-second loss to the New York Giants after Scott Norwood missed the game-winning field goal Wide Right. Featuring interviews with four Hall of Famers from that group — Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith — and the litany of great players involved in those teams, this is a great story and team that deserves recognition for a rare, if ignominious, achievement.
9) Fernando Nation
Fernando Valenzuela’s rise to prominence with the Los Angeles Dodgers is often compared to the narrative in The Natural. The thing is, Fernando Mania actually happened and still remains one of the most underrated baseball stories ever. Getting plucked from obscurity to become a dominant pitcher is a wild ride of its own, but this film takes special care to explain why Valenzuela meant so much more to a particular set of Dodgers fans with very different memories of Chavez Ravine. Moments like this is where 30 For 30 truly shines, adding social and political context to the great sports moments we may have already forgotten.
8) Four Days In October
The least favorite 30 for 30 of Yankees fans everywhere, this is a behind-the-scenes look at the 2004 Boston Red Sox comeback in the ALCS. Featuring video taken inside the clubhouse by players, staff, and media, the documentary goes well beyond what we saw on TV as the Red Sox made history and overcame a 3-0 deficit in the postseason for the first time in playoff baseball history. This is an incredibly important piece of media for Red Sox fans, as the team went on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. You’ll never unhear Kevin Millar saying “Don’t let us win tonight,” hours before Dave Roberts stole second and everything changed in Fenway Park. But it’s also a remarkable piece of baseball history, and the clubhouse sights and sounds add a dynamic to the accomplishment in a big way.
7) This Was The XFL
The rebirth of the XFL in 2019 was cut short by COVID-19, but many of the lessons the new league learned from its 2001 counterpart were hard truths on display in this film. From its bombastic debut and the instant infamy of He Hate Me to its catastrophic bust after a single season, the XFL was a lesson in style over substance and what can go wrong in startup sports leagues. Hindsight has made these follies funnier, but This Was The XFL is a fascinating look at the people involved in the upstart league and why things were, in many ways, doomed from the start.
6) You Don’t Know Bo
The superlatives showered on Bo Jackson are clear in this one: he’s called the greatest athlete of the 20th century just minutes into the film. But what follows certainly backs that up, as You Don’t Know Bo chronicles the most dynamic two-sport athlete in modern history. Jackson’s time in both the NFL and MLB are explored here, as are the injuries that derailed his career in both. There are oddly intimate moments on display, such as Jackson showing off his archery skills and quietly contemplating his career. It’s a wonderful look at a player with a world of talent and equal amounts of misfortune, and yet another story that deserved to be told to future generations. The highlights of Jackson on the football and baseball fields are truly spectacular and the praise given to him is well-deserved by everyone involved. A joyous watch all around.
The first of two Billy Corben films on this list, Broke is a look at all the ways athletes can lose their fortunes and features some tough interviews from the players who went, well, broke. It’s an eye-opening exploration of what fame and influence can bring to someone’s finances and destroys the myth that all athletes are set for life once they make it big. Watching this film changes the way you think about sports, as big an endorsement of a sports documentary as you’ll get.
4) Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
One of the earliest 30 for 30s, Winning Time still holds up as masterful storytelling through the eyes of all parties involved in the Pacers and Knicks rivalry of the 1990s. The interviews are highly entertaining and yield some incredible lines — John Starks saying “Did this dude really just did this?” regarding Reggie Miller’s back-to-back threes to tie Game 1 of the 1995 series is a personal favorite. It is a highly entertaining look at one of the great rivalries of that era, featuring just about every major player and persona that took part, from Miller to Ewing to Spike Lee.
3) Pony Excess
Based on a book of the same name, Pony Excess looks at the rapid rise and fall of the SMU football program in the early 1980s. Starting with the recruitment of Eric Dickerson and his stunning choice to join the Mustangs, the documentary follows how SMU’s brazen pay-for-play system, orchestrated by boosters and the coaching staff, eventually earned them the first (and last) death penalty from the NCAA, effectively ruining the SMU football program for more than two decades. It is a fascinating look at the world of college football recruiting, boosters, and why even in a shady world like recruiting where just about everyone is cheating to some degree, SMU’s indiscretions stood out.
2) The Two Escobars
A decade since its release, The Two Escobars remains one of the best sports documentaries ever made. A harrowing and heartbreaking look at how the drug underworld intertwined with Columbian soccer, the film chronicles how Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel impacted sports in the nation and how it led to tragedy involving Columbian soccer team captain Andrés Escobar. It’s an engrossing story whether you’re a soccer fan or not and brings new context to the world soccer stage. An excellent film, wire to wire.
1) The U
Billy Corben’s love letter to the University of Miami is the pinnacle of the genre and in the eyes of many is the best 30 for 30 ever made. In many ways, Miami football was the first time hip-hop culture was put on display in living rooms across America, and the film goes into great detail to explain why it all came together in Miami and made the program a powerhouse. It’s fun, full of color, and has an attitude that matched the vibe Miami football put out during its glory days. There are many great documentaries on this list, but The U was such fertile ground that there’s even a Part Two and a third 30 for 30 just about the Catholics vs. Convicts showdown with Notre Dame. All three are good, but just like in the old days you just can’t beat the original U.