So your Ragtag Bunch of Misfits has finally learned to work together, become a family, and made it all the way to the championship. Now all they have to do is win the big game, which is easy, because Underdogs Never Lose.
Except for this time. This time, the underdogs lose by one fourth of a point in the last two seconds of over-time because the star player twisted his ankle at the worst possible time. The team's spirit is utterly crushed and they feel like they let everyone down. But then, their fans all start to cheer, the Jerk Jock captain of the rival team comes to praise them for being such Worthy Opponents, and their coach congratulates them on playing such a great game. When they ask why everyone is so excited that they lost, their coach tells them that it's because they're still winners. On the inside.
Obviously Truth in Television to any fan of a sports team. It should be noted, however, that in fiction the matter is mostly bipolar: you either win or lose (in this case, with dignity and/or by a very small margin), whereas in Real Life the measure of what can be considered a success varies depending on the performance of a particular team up until that point. In the eyes of the fans of the last season's champion, for instance, failing to make it through to the semi-finals will be seen as a tremendous defeat whereas merely qualifying to a big tournament by an underdog local team will often be celebrated more than winning the finals themselves.
Even though they did lose the big game, the protagonists are still better people because of what they had to go through to get there. Happens often in movies Based on a True Story, with a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue to show you that everyone still went on to be successful despite this loss. Although this trope used to be considered a twist on the usual Underdogs Never Lose story, it's actually starting to become the most common ending.
See also Second Place Is for Winners.
As this is an Ending Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.
- In the baseball drama Taishō Baseball Girls, the girls middle school baseball team loses by a single point to their nationals-contending boys team rivals when the protagonist is off by a few millimeters in her last second slide to home base. This is still considered to be a good ending as the girls have earned the respect of their rivals, and more importantly have proven to themselves that being girls does not mean that they can't achieve anything they put their minds to.
- Pokémon: The Series: Save for the Orange Islands Filler Arc, in the 22 years that the show has been on the air, Ash Ketchum successfully battles almost all the way to the championship, only for Always Someone Better, or, in the case of the Sinnoh and Kalos Leagues, straight up Diabolus ex Machina, to rear its head. However, these defeats only temporarily discourage Ash, and instead are used to encourage him to keep going and train harder. It isn't until Alola that Ash finally wins a League.
- Tiger Mask has it happen multiple times, usually to the title character. Most notably, the last match of the manga version, where he fought Dory Funk Jr. for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and, after a hard fought match, won by disqualification when Funk punched the referee instead of submitting, thus missing the championship even after decisively winning, with everyone recognizing that Tiger Mask was the true champion.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, Team Taiyo uses a deck full of weak Normal Monster Cards with some protection, focusing on summoning the Awesome, but Impractical Com Mon Zushin, the Sleeping Giant. While initially The Scrappy to the audience, once they found out that Team Taiyo is going to summon the monster that has never been summoned in history before, they start to cheer up for the team. While Team Taiyo does summon the almost invincible monster Zushin and almost win the duel, Team 5D's manages to destroy Zushin regardless and win the duel. Despite their loss, their new fans cheer them up for their amazing duel, and the team fulfills their dream of proving of their own worth as a team.
- Stardust Telepath: In chapter 21, the Rocketry Research Association (badly) lose the model rocket competition by massively overshooting the target zone. However, when they return to school, their classmates cheer and gush over how their rocket flew so much higher than everybody else's — even though that wasn't the point of the competition at all. Still, the RRA are proud they touched their classmates' hearts.
- Best of the Best. It's the last match of the U.S./South Korea karate tournament and the South Koreans are ahead by a few points. The South Korean fighter is badly hurt but still standing, and could be killed if the American fighter hits him at full power. He's also the guy who accidentally killed the American fighter's brother years ago during a match. The American decides not to attack the South Korean, allowing time to expire and the U.S. to lose the tournament. The Americans are dismayed by the loss but believe their colleague did the right thing. The South Korean team, recognizing the honor and mercy shown by their opponent, give their gold medals to the American fighters because they feel the Americans truly won.
- In Comrades of Summer, the newly minted Soviet Olympic baseball team (only one of whom ever played baseball before being drafted for the team, which itself had only been training for all of about eight months) play an exhibition game against the defending World Series champion Seattle Mariners before their appearance at the summer Olympics. They lose, 5-4, on a Seattle home run in the bottom of the ninth. The USSR squad is downhearted at the loss, until one of the American sportscasters point out that they held the World Champions to only a one-run victory despite being inexperienced amateur players. (The Mariners even clap for the Soviets after the game ends!)
- In the film Coach Carter, even though the protagonists lose the championship, they return home to a gymnasium full of all their friends and family cheering for them. The epilogue makes it clear that every one of them was able to graduate and go to college due to the titular coach inspiring them not to give up. It helps that their coach was Samuel L. Jackson.
- It is even foreshadowed earlier in the movie that actually winning the final isn't important when Carter asks his team who won the previous years and none of them can remember.
- The original The Bad News Bears. They lose the big game but still feel like they won.
- In Whip It, they lose the final match but the protagonist has won the respect and approval of her parents and peers.
- Rocky and Rocky Balboa both have this as the point, with Based on a True Story on the first film to boot. The titular boxer scores a personal victory for himself just for going the whole length of the fight, even if he then loses by decision.
- In Mr. 3000, the main character never actually reaches 3000 base hits, giving up his last opportunity in a sacrifice bunt because it's better for the team if he bunts. He is still in a good life position afterward, and helped his team to learn some things and win their last game.
- School of Rock: The School loses at the Battle of the Bands, but everyone loves them, and they get a nice future in the closing credits.
- The movie Cool Runnings, loosely based off the first Olympic attempt by the Jamaica bobsled team. They lose, but prove that they're capable of competing in the Winter Olympics.
- In Rollbounce, the protagonist, in a roller-skating competition, attempts a complicated move he's been practicing for weeks — and falls flat on his butt. The Jerk Jock competitor gives him a thumbs up for even trying it.
- At the end of Cars, Lightning McQueen gives up the chance to win the big Piston Cup race so he can help The King finish his last race, but is still revered by everyone due to helping the King finish the race. On the other hand, Chick, who deliberately injured The King in the first place and only won because Lightning stopped in front of the finish line, not only loses the sponsorship of Dinoco, but the respect of most everyone.
- In Run Fatboy Run, Dennis manages to come dead last in the London Marathon after getting a Twisted Ankle very early in. Despite this, he limps the final hundred yards to a cheering crowd.
- Similar to Rocky, Real Steel has this. Atom loses to Zeus by points, but the final rounds is all about little Atom totally dominating the huge champion robot. The owners of Zeus proclaim that Zeus is the winner, as expected, but the crowd is all for Atom, and Atom is celebrated as "the People's Champion".
- The baseball episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Niners lose, significantly, but in the process Sisko is reminded that baseball is meant to be fun, and he shouldn't let his rivalry with the other captain interfere with that, and Rom gets to be a hero.
- In the second season finale of Glee, the New Directions lose Nationals in New York but still maintain a positive outlook since unlike their first year, there was no risk of being shut down should they lose. Brittany takes the loss pretty well, and manages to encourage the less optimistic members.
Brittany: I hated losing just as much as everyone, but this year wasn't about winning for me.
Santana: Clearly, because we got our asses kicked. *Beat* Sorry. What was it about?
Brittany: Acceptance. I know that all the kids in the Glee Club, they fight and steal each other's boyfriends and girlfriends, and they threaten to quit like every other week, but weird stuff like that happens in families.
Santana: This is a club, not a family.
Brittany: Ok well, family is a place where everyone loves you no matter what, and they accept you for who you are.
- It comes up in the fifth season as well, where the club takes the loss at Nationals quite hard due to it happening just after Finn's death and it means they really are being shut down. However, they spent their last few club meetings together reminiscing about the good times, celebrating their graduating members, and assuring themselves that Finn would've been proud of their hard work.
- At the end of Punch-Out!!, after losing three times in Mac's Last Stand.
Doc Louis: Listen, son! You've had a great career! I'm proud of you, son! You're still the champion in my book!
- Subverted in the episode of The Simpsons, titled "the Joy of Sect". A local sports team returning to Springfield is quite upbeat in spite of losing the big game and sees a big crowd awaiting them. However, the crowd is not there to give them a hero's welcome.
Team member exiting plane: Hey, look! There's a big crowd to welcome us back even though we lost.Moe: Hey, I'll give you something to cry about, you loser! You can't catch a football? Let's see if you can catch a rock!Moe throws a rock which hits a player in the face. Others start to throw things too. The team players retreat back onto the plane. A riot ensues, during which the airplane gets flipped upside down.
- The episode "The Boys of Bummer" showcases this same amount of meanness and then plays it for further cruelty: Bart is pretty much the sole reason the local pee-wee league team makes it to the finals, but they lose because he misses a fly ball. They bully him because of this one mistake to the point he attempts suicide.
- Also subverted in the episode of Family Guy where Brian goes back to college where he originally dropped out to graduate. He comes home proudly declaring that he failed his final exam but he didn't cheat. The Griffins glumly tell him that he should've cheated.
- Averted BIG TIME in A Boy Named Charlie Brown - Charlie Brown is devastated over his loss in the spelling bee (the fact that he made it all the way to second place in the nationals is never regarded by him or anybody else but as an utter failure). He gets absolutely no hero's welcome or even consolation for his efforts. Linus mentions in passing that the rest of the class did missed him while he was gone, but his big speech to attempt to cheer up Charlie revolves around pointing out one single thing: he lost and "the world didn't ended".
- In The Owl House episode "Wing it Like Witches", Luz's team (consisting of her, Willow and Amity) manages to win against Boscha's in a match of Grudgby in the last second... until the score for Boscha's team suddenly maxes out to 999 points. Boscha gloats to Luz and Willow that while they were trying to score the winning point, she went to catch the Rusty Smidge, which makes her team win automatically. However, Boscha's teammates rush over to Willow (who made the final point), praising and complimenting her skills, even inviting her to join the school's Grudgby team. Needless to say, Boscha's "win" had been instantly forgotten.