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It seems to me that this genre really spiked in 2017, but we've had Digimon and Sword Art Online for years before. What really started this boom?

  • I'd say it has more to do with the proliferation of isekai web novels, which in turn ended in a proliferation of isekai ligh novels that were later turned into anime. Said web novel boom would be influenced by series like SAO, but probably the most important is Mushoku Tensei, which is still at the top of the charts in Syosetsu despite having ended a few years ago. I'm not well-versed enough on this topic to make a proper answer. – paulnamida Aug 5 '18 at 15:20
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According to Gigguk's video Isekai: The genre that took over modern anime, paulnamida's comment is basically correct - there were isekai shows in the 90s, but they were mainly shoujo-focused, and the recent boom seems to mainly stem from the boom in light novels that came after the popularity of Sword Art Online (which was not itself technically isekai, but it set things up well for them).

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