Hit Japanese anime has Australians digging volleyball

Kat Wong |

Volleyball Australia memberships and those in NSW, Queensland and Victoria have more than doubled.
Volleyball Australia memberships and those in NSW, Queensland and Victoria have more than doubled.

A Japanese high school sport anime has birthed a new generation of Australian volleyballers, with its immense popularity helping double engagement across the country.

Based on a manga with more than 55 million copies in circulation, Haikyu!! is one of the world’s most loved Japanese animated series.

The show follows exuberant teenager Hinata Shoyo, who becomes obsessed with volleyball after watching Karasuno High School’s short yet brilliant spiker compete at nationals.

Vertically-challenged himself, Hinata makes up for his height with pure determination and eventually joins the same team, eyes set on becoming the best in Japan.

The anime first hit the Australian consciousness in 2014, jumping in popularity in 2016 before taking off during COVID-19 lockdown, according to Google search data.

In the show’s wake, fans have flocked to local clubs in their thousands.

Memberships for Volleyball Australia and state-based bodies in NSW, Queensland and Victoria have at least doubled since 2015.

West Australian data shows total participation hopped from about 8000 in 2013 to 30,000 in 2015 before almost tripling in 2017, eventually landing on 180,000 in 2021.

Axel Lam, 13, is one of the many who were inspired to pick up the sport.

“I watched Haikyu!! during lockdown and was like ‘I may as well try this’,” he says.

“Bought a ball and played with my dad a bit in year six and when year seven came around it became an option at school and I was like ‘may as well do that’.”

Partially inspired by his favourite character Tobio Kageyama, Axel plays setter and spends 10 hours a week at games and training.

“It gets the feel of it right, the fast pace of it, because that already matches with the high intensity of anime in general,” he says.

Despite being one of the most-played sports internationally, within Australia volleyball is yet to compete with Aussie rules or rugby for tall, young talent.

But the status quo has started to shift.

Between 2008 and 2015, the number of indoor volleyball teams in the Queensland Schools Cup had plateaued, hovering around 600 across all year groups. Once Haikyu!! kicked off, though, tournament participation skyrocketed, with more than 1200 teams registered in 2022.

Not all high schoolers love the show, some find it too unbelievable, but even detractors like 15-year-old defender Steven Yin appreciate the impact it has had.

“A lot of young people feel really inspired by the anime, which I think is good and helps to grow the community here in Sydney,” he says.

Volleyball NSW CEO Baz Wedmaier says other factors like the sport’s international popularity, non-contact nature and relative gender parity are also playing a role in its Australian surge.

“Haikyu!! has just come at the right time and really driven something with an age demographic that is perfect for volleyball,” he says.

Pinyan Gao, founder of Sydney club Just Spike It and a former state and nationals representative, says the newfound popularity has transformed the Australian volleyball landscape.

“When JSI was established in 2019, there were only a few other social clubs offering training programs for junior and adult beginners,” he says.

“Volleyball used to be dominated by a few schools who were lucky to have an experienced teacher.”

This created a small pool of trained athletes who would join a handful of select clubs and dominate at the state level.

Since the volleyball boom, there are fewer barriers to entry and beginners come to the sport with a higher baseline understanding, determined to ride out the difficult learning curve.

“One club said they had an entire group of kids rock up to a session knowing exactly what positions they wanted to play,” Wedmaier says. 

“They knew exactly what was going on, they were technically educated, they knew how to speak volleyball – they had very little skill because of course you don’t actually learn by watching –  but they knew what they were trying to do.”

Haikyu’s manga finished its run in 2020 and the anime is slated to wrap up with two movies next year but Gao is confident volleyball enthusiasm will prevail even when the series falls from relevance.

“It’s the perfect balance between ball control and composure, and raw power and athleticism which makes it such an exciting sport to play,” he says.

While the show brought people to the door, the universal thrill of acing a jump serve, slamming a spike into the floor, blocking an opponent’s hit, alongside the friendly, close-knit community, is what keep players coming back.

“Volleyball is a sport you can bond over, even for people who are new or people who are really experienced – you can still have that connection,” Steven Yin says.

“Also if you do volleyball it’s kind of cool, you’re kind of a cool person.”