Art by Jim Cooke/GMG

When the clock counted down the last 100 seconds, Injustice 2 Pro Series player Dominique “Sonic Fox” McLean knew he’d already won the match. His opponent’s health bar had been reduced to a sliver. All Sonic Fox had to do was kill time. So he started teabagging.

As the enemy player cowered on the other side of the screen, Sonic Fox deployed a series of rapid crouches as he made his way across the screen. The crowd roared. Everyone knew what that dipping dance-like motion meant, whether far away or right up close to a fallen opponent: I’m gonna put my balls on your face.

The teabag is a victory dance inspired by a sex act of the same name. The general public found out about teabagging in the late ’90s thanks to John Waters’s 1998 film Pecker, which depicts the practice as, in Waters’ words, “the act of dragging your testicles across your partner’s forehead … a popular dance step that male go-go boys did to their customers for tips.” Somehow, a sexual performance popularized by Baltimore’s gay nightclub scene went on to become a popular form of taunting among gamers for the past two decades.

The gaming version of teabagging appeared around the same time among Quake and Counter-Strike players, who would celebrate a kill by rapid-crouching over corpses. The trend soon spread to console shooters like Halo and Call of Duty; in team shooters, the “kill cam” feature forces defeated players to watch, helpless, as they get teabagged by the winner.

More recently, teabagging has picked up speed among fighting game players, thanks to pros like Sonic Fox deploying the move at major tournaments. Several other notorious teabaggers have emerged on the scene as well, like Street Fighter pros Du “NuckleDu” Dang and Victor “Punk” Woodley, both known for trading off teabags during big matches. Unlike team shooters, fighting games are one on one, and individual players often create bombastic personas to go along with their fighting styles.

This past year, Punk started calling himself the teabagging “alpha” and told Compete he uses teabagging to play mind games: “It gets in certain people’s heads and messes them up.” Sonic Fox has a similar view, saying, “I often use teabagging as a way to make the opponent crack or get angry. It’s dirty but efficient if they get tight easily.”

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The rise of teabagging has sparked debate in the fighting game community. Earlier this year, the Killer Instinct World Cup announced a teabagging ban that was eventually reversed in the wake of criticism from pros like Sonic Fox. Fighting game players have more eyes on them now than ever before, with TBS’s Eleague adding multiple fighting game tournaments to its broadcast lineup this past year. When Punk played in Eleague’s Street Fighter tournament, his teabagging prompted laughter but also hesitation from the commentators, one of whom said twice: “That’s not what people came to see,” calling to mind Joe Buck’s sanctimony when he was blinded by Randy Moss’s moon. When Punk teabagged at NorCal Regionals, the in-person audience laughed, but the online reception was frostier. After Punk’s matches, fighting game veteran and commentator IFC YipeS tweeted, “Teabagging is wack now. Gotta go.”

Meanwhile, team shooters like Counter-Strike are no stranger to the limelight, with a major tournament scene that dates back to the 2000s. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments have yet to ban teabagging, but the practice is still fraught among fans of team shooters.

Brian Myers, a PhD candidate at UMass-Amherst, surveyed 393 fans of first-person shooters in 2010 and this fall published a paper about his findings called “Friends With Benefits: Plausible Optimism and the Practice of Teabagging in Video Games.” Myers found that “many participants took pains to distance themselves” from the practice of teabagging, describing it as “immature.”

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Other respondents disagreed, with 53 describing teabagging as “funny” to perform, and 68 respondents finding it “funny” to watch others get teabagged. In their write-in explanations of their answers, several gamers clarified teabagging is only “fun” when it’s between friends. Like a towel snap in a traditional sports locker room crossed with a post-touchdown victory dance, a teabag between two consenting gamers can signal trust and team spirit.

“Teabagging in FPS games is a really bad strategy since it leaves you vulnerable to counterattack,” Myers told Compete via email. “So, when friends are doing it to friends in FPS games, it (probably unintentionally) communicates the message that the player trusts the other players enough to make themselves vulnerable without fear of reprisals.”

In team shooters, teabagging over a corpse takes away precious seconds that could be spent finding cover, killing more enemies, or locking down an objective. Yet teabagging has persisted, even among pro players.

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Modern-day Counter-Strike pros still plop down the teabag at major competitions. Robin “flusha” Rönnquist, who has been playing Counter-Strike since 2011 and still competes in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, teabags other players often enough that he seems to inspire his opponents to follow suit. For example, at Gfinity Champion of Champions 2015, flusha got teabagged, and at MLG Columbus 2016, he was both teabag giver and receiver. His team did not win, but the crowd still hollered their appreciation of every teabag.

Myers gathered his survey results in 2010, before the launch of Twitch.TV in 2011 and before the boom in esports tournament broadcasts all over the world. “I wonder if the teabagging at the pro level becomes a way for the pro player to create a closer relationship with his or her audience,” Myers speculated. “It could be a way for the pro player to signal to their audience that they’re ‘just one of them.’” As esports players become brands, so too do their digital testicles, in ways both fun and shitty.

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In the team shooter genre, which is dominated by all-male character rosters as well as all-male pro players at the highest levels of play, the teabag takes on an undeniable homoerotic slant. In queer subculture, teabagging began as a joyful dance. Among groups of friends playing Counter-Strike, it could still serve that purpose. But it’s not even always used with consent. It’s a steep uphill climb to argue that teabagging is always sex-positive.

When deployed among strangers, the teabag is obnoxious at best and sexual harassment at worst. In those moments, the teabag feels like a sexual humiliation ritual. The fact that it’s forced upon corpses adds a new level of grisliness. Teabagging among pro players could be seen as a teabag among friends, but the audience’s presence adds pressure to be cool with a form of taunting that’s actually pretty weird.

Competitive gaming has a long history with sexually-charged taunts. A decade ago, the colloquial use of the word “rape” as a synonym for “dominate” was still common parlance among pro gamers in both fighting games and team shooters alike.

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That slang has mostly died off as pro gaming across all genres have attracted more and more attention and money. Since North America’s first televised esports competitions in 2006, pro gaming has continually, if sometimes slowly, cleaned up its act, culminating in today’s squeaky clean Eleague esports competitions on TBS. Teabagging exists in an in-between area, a form of taunting that has a sexual origin but isn’t as explicit as saying “rape.”

In some ways, fighting games feel like a better fit for teabagging’s queer history and context. Unlike Counter-Strike, games like Street Fighter V and Injustice 2 feature gender-diverse rosters of playable fighters. Punk always teabags with his character of choice, the female fighter Karin, making the act appear more like the subversive taunt of a dominatrix than a homoerotic display between two male soldiers, as it appears in Counter-Strike. The actual humans playing the game are more diverse, too. Sonic Fox is one of few pro gamers who is openly bisexual. The fighting game community also boasts multiple female pros who have placed in major tournaments; almost all of the highest-paid female pro gamers got their start in fighting games.

Those women teabag, too. Street Fighter V pro Leah “Gllty” Hayes went toe to toe with NuckleDu at Frosty Faustings last January and gave the notorious teabagger a taste of his own medicine. She has also joked around about teabagging Street Fighter veterans like Daigo, should she ever beat him.

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Gllty told Compete about the context behind this match, saying that “audience doesn’t make a super big impact” on her tournament behavior, and that it’s more about camaraderie: “NuckleDu, who I consider a friend ... has a habit of teabagging. I had nothing to prove, and he teabagged me back, but it was just us having fun.”

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She sees a big difference between how teabagging operates among fighting game players and the team shooter fans who originated the practice. Many first-person shooter (FPS) gamers compete online, unlike fighting game pros who came up in arcades and learned games face-to-face—giving the taunt different meanings in the two contexts. Gllty says, “I feel fighting games sort of force a certain degree of interpersonal interaction and respect that isn’t found with people whose experience is essentially confined to a cave where no one can hear you nerdrage.”

Even for the FPS pros who play on a stage instead of in a “cave,” the atmosphere is still less personal than in fighting games. When flusha teabags his opponents in CS:GO, he’s sitting at a computer surrounded by his own teammates. His opponents are on the other side of the stage, sitting in their own computer enclave.

The interpersonal nature of fighting games can make it easier for pro players to tell what jokes are appropriate and what’s gone too far. FPS players don’t seem to operate that way, according to Gllty: “I feel in the FGC [fighting game community], you can say, ‘Yo dude, you suck’ without a reasonable concern someone is going to have a ridiculous temper tantrum in your personal space and loudly yell about how they slept with your mom or something equally sophomoric.”

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“I feel teabagging occupies a more hostile emotion in FPS that isn’t really translated in FGC games,” she went on, describing the teabag as more of a “freestyle taunt” for fighting game players, as opposed to a simulated sex act. For the fighting game community, she says, “I think the sexual implications are lost.”

Although the Killer Instinct World Cup’s proposed ban on teabagging got met with pushback from fighting game pros, the fact that the tournament even discussed the ban shows that the fighting game community cares about trash talk, taunting, and what position various taunts should play in their games. Ironically, this all started in a scene that didn’t even invent the taunt.

But it is a scene that, as Gllty points out, has consciously stopped using terms like “rape” as it matured. “It’s a little jarring to go to other genres and hear people casually throw around ‘we’re gonna rape these guys,’” she went on. “There is a lot of work to be done, but I don’t really feel teabagging is a rotten root at the center of obstructing higher rates of gender inclusivity.”

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When watching Gllty in action, it’s hard not to take her at her word. When she and NuckleDu traded taunts and teabags, they weren’t alone in a “cave” or sitting on opposite ends of a massive stage, they were inches away from each other. Right after the match, at the end of all the taunting and stress, they stood up, looked each other in the eye, smiled, and exchanged polite conversation as they walked off stage together.