What is a sports watch? As one of the most popular categories in horology, that is the multi-million dollar question.

We like to think of it as the sneaker of the watch world: a category that can be elevated to dizzyingly luxurious heights, while still having the kind of versatility and practicality that makes it perfect for everyday wear.

Dress it up, dress it down, it’s an all-rounder in every sense of the word — combining the durability and waterproofing of a tool watch with the kind of sleeker design cues more closely associated with a dress watch. To pinch a phrase from an early Patek Philippe Nautilus advert: “They work as well with a wet suit as they do a dinner suit.”

Still, the sports watch isn’t the easiest category to define, so perhaps it’s worth looking at the early models that continue to inspire the watches of today.

The original is the Gerald Genta-designed, era-defining Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Created just a day before the Baselworld of 1972, this steel watch with anintegrated bracelet and unique octagonal bezel (inspired by traditional divers helmets) was a daring departure from the designs of the time. No less than four years later, Patek Philippe would instruct Genta to create their very own steel watch in this new guise, and the equally iconic Nautilus was born.

Of course, there are also timepieces that predate the meteoric rise of this category that have since been remarketed and redesigned to fit into this highly competitive category.

Oh, just one small thing: don’t wear these watches for, you know, actual sport. It won’t end well.

Meet this year's contenders for the Best Sports Watch award…

Breitling Superocean Heritage '57

Breitling Superocean Heritage '57

The 1950s saw the birth of the dive watch, along with an obsession with these sea-faring designs that has lasted to the modern day. In 1953, Blancpain launched the world’s first purpose-built dive watch and Rolex released its game-changing Submariner, while Omega followed suit two years later by setting the first of multiple Seamaster diving records.

It would be fair to assume, then, that the 1957 launch of the Breitling Superocean was more of a follower than a trend setter, but that wouldn't be telling the full story. The Superocean brought with it Breitling's wealth of experience at creating highly resilient pilots watches, as well as an innovative design that was water resistant up to 200m (a vast improvement on the Seamaster's 62.5m record from 1955). It's been a popular dive watch ever since. 

The Superocean Heritage release in 2007 (celebrating 50 years of the collection) and the next-generation Superocean Heritage II launched in 2017 both feature design cues of the original model, but neither is as pleasing a vintage throwback as the brand-new Heritage '57 capsule collection. The concave ceramic bezel is a real 'come hither' to your gaze, while the elongated markers and oversized indices are very 1950s in their appearance. 

Czapek & Cie Antarctique Collection

Czapek & Cie Antarctique Collection 

Czapek & Cie, relaunched in 2011, is not the first brand to perform CPR to a long-lost watchmaker's name and nor will it be the last, but in its short existence it has forged a reputation for creating beautifully furnished dress watches the likes of which Franciszek Czapek (the original partner of Antoni Norbert de Patek) would be proud to have been associated. What it is not known for is steel sports watches. And yet here we are: the Antarctique collection. 

Czapek's first foray into the sporty sphere is a confident step along a well-trodden path. It owes much of its design to the great Genta designs of the 1970s – the slender tonneau-shaped case, the tapered steel bracelet, are very much from the Royal Oak playbook – but there are enjoyable points of difference, too. The c-shaped centre-link design is inspired by Mr Czapek's name, while the four different hand-decorated lamé dials contrast wonderfully with the matte and polished edges of the steel case. 

Best of all, though, is the micro-rotor automatic movement on display at the back of the watch. The gorgeous network of skeletonized bridges is a modern reimagining of a 19th-century pocket watch movement – only this one is chronometer-certified and boasts a 56-hour power reserve. 

Greubel Forsey Balancier S

Greubel Forsey Balancier S 

Esteemed watchmakers Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey do not do things by halves: they create highly complex, money-no-object watches that are impeccably decorated and brimming with innovation. They are not, however, the kinds of slender pieces you might associate with the sportier portion of the market. Instead, Greubel Forsey timepieces tend to be sizeable beasts that sometimes are, quite literally, bulging out at the sides of the case in order to squeeze in yet more complication.

It's no surprise, then, that news the dynamic duo were creating a dedicated sports watch was met with raised eyebrows, and more than a little curiosity.

The Balancier S certainly feels like a sports watch. It features a highly contoured lightweight titanium case that hugs the wrist, has a water resistance of up to 100m, and even comes on a rubber strap. The movement, on the other hand, with its escapement inclined to 30 degrees and variable inertia balance wheel is not what we're used to. 

Still, this feels like Greubel Forsey pulling back on some of its more sizeable innovations in order to bring its fan base a watch you can wear every day. 

H Moser & Cie Streamliner Centre Seconds

H Moser & Cie Streamliner Centre Seconds 

There are a number of points to note where the Streamliner Centre Seconds is concerned: firstly, this is the first bonafide sports watch we've seen from H Moser & Cie, it boasts a striking fumé dial that is described by the manufacture as being a 'Matrix Green', and thirdly feels totally independent to the 1970s Genta designs we most associate with this watch category. That's a full house as far as we're concerned.

The futuristic case and bracelet makes a lot of sense when you consider the Streamliner Modern period of design from which it draws inspiration. Take the Streamliner high-speed train as a case in point: all sleek curves and seamless fluid lines, it looks built for speed. On the watch itself, this manifests itself in the integrated bracelet and its wave-like interlinking pieces – it looks like it belong on a space suit of some kind. 

This being Moser, they haven't just stopped at one of the most striking designs of 2020. It also comes with a movement boasting a 72-hour power reserve that was developed and produced entirely in-house.

Hublot Big Bang Integral sports watch

Hublot Big Bang Integral 

The Big Bang Integral is a rather curious case where in the year of the collection's 15th anniversary we are finally getting the watch we probably should have had all along: a proper sports watch with an integrated bracelet. 

Don't get us wrong, the Big Bang put Hublot on the map for a reason – offering a louder-than-life rendition of the Genta sports watch blueprint – but it feels like in 2020 we finally have all the pieces to the puzzle. First came the watch case itself, then came the Unico in-house movement in 2013, and now the bracelet to finish the ensemble. 

Interestingly, in order to seamlessly blend the bracelet into the watch case Hublot has given its sporty chronograph a liberal helping of bevelling and chamfering. The result? The best looking Big Bang ever.

Laurent Ferrier Grand Sport Tourbillon

Laurent Ferrier Grand Sport Tourbillon 

Laurent Ferrier is your stereotypical 'watchmaker's watchmaker'. He spent 30-odd years at Patek Philippe, eventually holding the loft position of technical director (no small feat at the Swiss giant), but he left in 2010 to set up his eponymous brand; a platform to express his love of neo-classical watch designs.

To look at a Laurent Ferrier watch usually means to view a timepiece with that certain poise and elegance that only comes with decades worth of experience. 

The Grand Sport Tourbillon sees the watchmaker in some ways return to his Patek Philippe roots in that it shares a passing resemblance to the mighty Nautilus design. Be under no illusion, though, this is no poor imitator. In typical Ferrier fashion, it boasts a subtle voluptuousness – gentle curves in all the right places – that shift this away from Genta's masterpiece. The dial graduated dark blue dial with distinctive orange lume is also very much in the watchmaker's understated style, too.

Why is this watch special, you might ask? Flip it over and you see fruit of Ferrier's labour: a hand-wound tourbillon, revved up with every horological flourish of which you can imagine, hidden behind this sporty exterior.

To parrot the Marks & Spencer ad: this is not just any sports watch, it's a Laurent Ferrier sports watch.  

Ming 18.01 H41

Ming 18.01 H41 

The 18.01 H41 may not be the catchiest name in the world, but it is an eye-catching change of pace from the brilliant minds at Malaysian enfant terribles, Ming.

Since bursting onto the scene in 2017, Ming has made a name for itself thanks to bringing minimalist exciting designs to the accessible luxury portion of the market. And now it has thrown us a curveball in the shape of its first dive watch collection. 

The 18.01 H41 couples Ming's typically striking geometric, three-dimensional dial with a rugged dive watch silhouette. The result is one of this year's most interesting sports watch designs. We see a lot dive watches and sporty timepieces, but none of them look like this.  

Panerai Luminor Marina '70 Years Of Luminor' Collection

Panerai Luminor Marina '70 Years Of Luminor' Collection

Dive watch master Panerai has created a series of lume-heavy models that shine a light (geddit?) on its iconic Luminor collection – this year celebrating its 70th anniversary.

The three watches feature a new grade of lume called Super-LumiNova X1, which Panerai claims is stronger and longer-lasting than more commonly found variants – and, as such, it’s decked the whole watch in the stuff.

Add to the mix Panerai’s penchant for high-tech materials in the form of Carbotech, Fibratech, and titanium case options, and you have the summation of the Italian watchmaker’s vision of the perfect diving companion. 

Rolex Oyster Perpetual

Rolex Oyster Perpetual

In a year where Rolex has refreshed arguably its most iconic icon, the Submariner, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Swiss megabrand would be keeping things low key throughout the rest of its roster of stars. But no, the Oyster Perpetual has knocked us sideways by not only being an incredibly interesting proposition at its price point, but also giving the Sub a run for its money as the most exciting Rolex collection of the year. 

Like the Submariner, the Oyster Perpetual has had a growth spurt – up to 41mm from the previous 39mm case size – as well as a hardware change in the movement department (in fact, getting the same new movement as the Sub – with all the accompanying bells and whistles). 

We're particularly drawn to the the silver sunray dial, with yellow-gold hour markers and hands. It adds a vintage lustre to a modern day Rolex.

Tudor Black Bay Fifty Eight Navy Blue

Tudor Black Bay Fifty Eight Navy Blue 

The Black Bay collection has been setting the benchmark for accessible luxury since it first launched in 2012, but the 2018 release of the Black Bay Fifty Eight felt like the moment Tudor absolutely nailed the brief. 

Here we have a contemporary tool watch drawing on the designs of the past, perfectly sized, featuring an in-house movement, on the market for a couple of quid north of £2,500. It was the moment Tudor definitively stepped out of older brother Rolex's shadow and took the watch market by the scruff of the neck of its own accord. 

We're not surprised that Tudor has followed up with a new colourway in 2020, what surprises us is how different this watch feels to the launch model. Somehow the all-blue bezel and dial combinations nudges this watch away from the same vintage stylings and towards the contemporary end of the market. It's like viewing the same great watch for the first time all over again.