The Tournament Arc genre is more or less an offshoot of the martial arts genre in that it takes the concepts of competition and the garnering of strength that are the focal points of the fighting animes and applies them to any number of different ideas. The basic thought is that two individuals will train and grow ‘stronger’ over time and then face off to see who is the best. When it’s over they’ll do it all over again. The trials and tribulations are what make the show and in between fights (which are usually about 75% of the show) small quests to become even stronger ensue. These shows tend to have huge casts of characters to keep the fights and matchups fresh, and allow the writers to shift around allegiances at will. They also make for a broadcaster’s dream as the shows themselves can be dragged out for an entire season with just one tournament sequence, slowly building to climax each episode. These shows are the most successful of any anime because of that very reason. They hook and don’t let go.
Hikaru no Go – It’s about a boy who plays Go, the Japanese game of strategy and design, similar to chess but infinitely more complicated. It’s actually done incredibly well though and goes to show that in this format even a board game can be made to be interesting. The show was immensely popular in Japan were Go is a big sport and was eventually released even in American (where very few know what Go is)
Yu-Gi-Oh – Same idea, but with cards. Yu-Gi-Oh is the clever marketing genius that allows the toy companies to make money with their advertising, instead of spending it. The idea is that duelists have cards that contain powerful monsters that they then pit against each other. There’s a subplot in there about ancient pharaohs too, but the gist is the cards. And they sell a lot of cards.
Pokemon – Pokemon’s been around for years, since the first games came out for the Gameboy 10 years ago. The anime is just as old and follows the exact same format. Every episode contains at least one battle between pokemon trainers and a whole slew of good messages and klutzy bad guys. It’s a kids show, but it’s a powerful kids show.
Dragonball – The original Tournament Arc show, Dragonball defined how to drag out the episodes for dramatic effect, and the sequel series Dragonball Z mastered it. The basis is that they fighters get together and fight each other in a tournament every year. In between they train and spent a little bit of time with their families (a very little bit). The next year they go and fight in the tournament (usually half the season) and then something big happens and they go and fight a bigger force. The Z series was more about saving the world than tournaments, though the seasons with Cell were shot as a tournament and one more Tenkaichi tournament was slipped in during the Buu saga later on.
Revolutionary Girl Utena – This show basically follows Utena as she fights through a series of duels at her High School. However, as a tournament show it’s nothing like the rest of these. It’s very metaphysical and allegorical in nature, taking on themes like gender identity and the meaning of existence as seen by youth. It’s interesting to say the least, and the varied bits of other genres including the Magical Girl genre and the bits and pieces of the Sailormoon pathos, but in a whole different manner, much more grown up.