Nintendo’s removal of the “taunt” option in Smash Ultimate online play has sparked an outbreak of one of gaming’s most notorious behaviors: teabagging.
In Nintendo’s latest Smash game, players can’t use their fighters’ taunts when they’re playing online in Quick Play mode. In all other modes, the taunt move is typically mapped to the D-pad, and deploys custom animations for each fighter: Donkey Kong beating his chest, Ganondorf cracking his knuckles, Captain Falcon saluting and saying, “Show me your moves!” Players taunt after taking an enemy’s stock to rub it in, or to provoke a hot-headed attack in a stand-off. With no taunts available in online play, some players have resorted to a multiplayer gaming mainstay that, before now, was a rare sight throughout two decades of Smash Bros. games.
In a fifth of my Smash Ultimate online games, my opponent teabags after taking a stock from me. Others I’ve talked to, including friends and frequenters of Smash subreddits, say they’ve seen teabagging in half of their Quick Play online matches. At first, this bewildered me. Smash, a family-friendly Nintendo game that doesn’t even have blood, felt like a strange and incongruous context for that sort of wanton insult. Yet through the past few weeks that I’ve encountered teabagging—even once at an IRL Smash tournament—I’ve come to see how it’s woven itself into the game’s metaplay.
Explaining teabagging to a large audience is probably someone’s definition of hell, but it’s not mine, so here goes. Teabagging is a performative sex act that supposedly originated in Baltimore’s gay nightclub scene. It involves squatting and putting one’s testicles onto another person’s forehead. For the past twenty years, since the early days of first-person shooters like Counter-Strike and Quake, gamers have been maneuvering their avatars to do a simulated version of the teabag in virtual spaces by vigorously crouching up and down. Usually it goes down over an opponent’s knocked-out body. Later, when teabagging migrated over to fighting games, players would do the rapid-crouch from far away.
What does teabagging mean, though? Kotaku editor Maddy Myers interviewed pro gamers about what inspires them to teabag, and while some said they see it as a good-natured teasing among friends, others said they use it to make opponents crack, or get tilted. For those pros, it’s dirty. It’s mean. But it’s a little funny, too—not laugh-out-loud funny, but lul-funny—depending on who you are.
Teabagging is also controversial. It’s been banned from Killer Instinct tournaments. Last year, after one Overwatch pro teabagged another player who was on a less winning team that eventually went 0-40, live fans in the audience booed. Regardless of context or intent, some people consider teabagging to always be mean-spirited, chauvinistic and nefarious. Others get a big kick out of it, or, more cold-heartedly, make use of it as a demonstration of grit and cheek and arrogance—the equivalent of hanging on the rim after dunking the basketball.
On Twitter in 2017, Killer Instinct’s lead designer Adam “Keits” Heart had some strong words in favor of teabagging: “Fighting games are psychology. Disrespecting your opponent can be a psychological play. A ban for taunting removes [an] important human aspect . . . It already has a gameplay purpose because it can inflict psychological damage. The line is drawn outside of the game, not inside of it.”
About a month ago, I was in a too-close-to-call battle against a random Link player in Smash Ultimate. It was tight, my GameCube controller was getting a little moist, and although I was ahead by one stock, I had a lot of damage on me. I made a mistake, though, and neglected to dodge their powerful smash attack. I lost my lead. That’s when he teabagged.
In Smash, your opponent is off-stage when they’re dead. That means you can’t crouch over their virtual corpse, which is the traditional way to teabag in first-person shooters. Link was rapidly bouncing up and down in the corner of the stage. Despite playing lots of first-person shooters, and being an open advocate for good-spirited trash talking, I was pretty shocked. It’s Smash, for God’s sake—it’s basically a G-rated WrestleMania show of video game’s cutest critters, plus Bayonetta. The teabag threw me off. I’ll even say it tilted me. So you can bet that when I knocked him off stage, sure he would never come back, I teabagged in return. He eventually did come back and, I’m reluctant to admit, beat me. I left that match feeling pretty bad. I had never teabagged in another game. But here I was, doing it in the Loony Toons of fighting games.
Smash Ultimate players have been at odds with each other about the recent rise of teabagging in the game.
Crayon_Shin-Chan, who had commented on a teabagging thread in a Smash subreddit, further explained their stance in a direct message, saying that teabagging is okay in Quick Play games but only in certain situations. “People who defend teabagging often cite something like, ‘Well when I get an amazing combo or kill I want to call attention to it.’ And actually, I agree. If you perform some unique combo string into a kill or successfully pull off a risky offstage play, I’d say you earned your teabag recognition,” they wrote, adding, “However, the unfortunate part is that I more often see it used for when the opponent plays poorly. Accidental SD [self destruct], teabag. Repeatedly get caught in the same attack, tea bag.”
One other player, who goes by Nitrogen467 on the subreddit, told me that they really don’t like the increase in teabagging. “It feels unsportsmanlike,” they said. One other, KippyKinz, who plays Ganondorf, said they teabag when their opponent picks Ganondorf too as “a show of respect to each other for playing Ganondorf.”
Nearly everyone I spoke with told me they think it’s happening so much because taunting is disabled in these games. “Understand that we just want to communicate in online matches, but we’re just left with crouching which can make the online experience very frustrating. I hope that Nintendo can trust us to taunt online instead of leaving us frustrated with wondering whether our opponent is t-bagging to disrespect or just say ‘that was crazy,’” said user KittyDerpKat.
It’s difficult to interpret what a teabag means in Smash online. Is it “I’m the shit”? Is it “You suck”? “That was hype”? “U mad”? Some combination of the four? Regardless, I have found myself doing it more and more in online matches, often without thinking. Maybe I’ve just spiked someone. Or successfully punished an overly bold attack of theirs that missed. I’m not immune to feeling myself, and without more direct ways to convey it, the easiest thing to do is flip that joystick.
Since picking up this habit in the past few weeks, I have felt every possible feeling about it. Retroactively, I’d tell myself I was doing it ironically. It’s a meme, I would say to myself. It’s not teabagging-teabagging. It’s just saying “ha-ha.” It’s totally detached from whatever was happening in Baltimore clubs in the ‘90s, and even from the Halo bros of the ‘00s. Opponents wouldn’t take it literally. For my online opponents, of course, there’s no way to tell. I don’t want to be a jerk, but I do want my opponent to understand, in their heart of hearts, that I’m a competitive person and they are a spec of unlucky dust particle. Unlike at brick-and-mortar Killer Instinct tournaments, nobody knows what you mean by your teabag when you’re playing against strangers online, for whom you’re just a feverishly bouncing username attached to the protagonist of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
I’m still undecided on whether squatting up and down in Smash Ultimate is a bit of stupid fun or a throwback to an increasingly passe and arguably shitty breed of gamer behavior. While I am a big believer in the mind game—one tentacle of the all-encompassing experience of getting owned and owning others—disrespect isn’t a crucial part of the equation. Taunts are great because they treat opponents to adorable animations or corny voice lines while also insulting them. Pre-written messages are fine, too, because at least your opponent knows what you’re reacting to. Without established channels of communication, Smash Ultimate online players, myself included, are resorting to an ineffective and wholly ambiguous style of mind game.
I asked my buddy Dave for some feedback on my newfound teabagging habit. Last weekend, during some Smash Ultimate games, I had shocked him by impulsively teabagging after stealing a stock. Dave usually beats me at Smash, and, on top of practicing combos for hours on end, he also relies heavily on making me feel very small and inane with his words and actions. So I was curious to hear how he reacted to the teabagging. “Haha, confusion,” he responded to my text. “You did it so slowly. I couldn’t tell if it was an accident.” He continued, burying me deeper into the Earth, “It was like…. duck…. duck…..”.
Anyone who knows will tell you that it’s always better when it’s personal.