tldr is in bold.
A thinking player can enhance his reactions against a thinking player, but not against an unthinking one who also shows no consistent pattern (i.e. ‘random’).
Let me explain:
There is your general reaction speed, i.e. raw reaction speed to non-specific stimulae (which you are born with, and is rather limited in how much you can enhance it), and then there is the selective reaction speed you get when you narrow your focus on a smaller selection of things to respond to, or narrow the time-frame in which you know they will occur. I call this ‘focus-enhanced reaction speed’, or selective reaction speed, and unlike general reaction speed it is quite trainable (and exploitable).
Any human’s mind can only cover so many options at one time, and by dilating or contracting one’s awareness around various options on a grade of likelyhood, you enhance your response time to those reactions. And if you feel certain that only one or two are the likely options because you’re REALLY good at reading, you can focus exclusively on those and you’re almost guarranteed not to miss anything.
(Also this is where a lot of the ‘game’ of fighting games opens up: around the very fact that humans can only track so many options at once).
For example, if I told you that that within the next five seconds i’m going to raise my right or left hand for one second and you have to respond by saying ‘right hand’ or ‘left hand’ accordingly, you could probably do it. Maybe not if you’ve not had enough sleep/not had your coffee yet…
If I told you that I was going to raise one of my hands in the next five hours for two seconds, chances are you’d be too disarmed to respond in a timely fashion. Your focus would be broken apart too much.
(off-topic: this is also related to why a smaller time span between links makes links easier. A one frame link with 7 frames between button presses is probably easier for most than a three frame link with 80 frames between button presses–or a 20 frame link with an hour between button presses. You get the idea).
If I tried to do the same test with any one of twenty fingers, likewise your response time would go down as you have to track more options. But if I gave away a ‘tell’ like unconsciously glancing at the area of one of the fingers I was going to raise, this might give you the ‘reaction speed’ you need to respond.
Now with that explained, let’s address the topic.
One thing that defines a non-thinking or ‘random’ player is either a lack of respect for the concept of safety and risk (disrespectful/DGAF/bored/let’s-see-if-I-can-get-away-with-it type) or lack of knowledge of safety and risk (scrub, beginner). By that I mean not understanding or not caring about the implications of startup or recovery time.
If you’re smart enough to always know which area of options to focus on when reacting to something (or worse, aren’t smart enough but have convinced yourself you are), but yet have horrible general reaction speed, you’ll likely continually miss opportunities against a random player, because a random player doesn’t play at a level of sophistication that gives off tells which help you assist your reaction speed with selective focus.
(Keep in mind that this is less applicable if you DO have a good natural reaction speed to non-specific stimulae. It only applies to certain people.)
This is also not to be confused with a mere weak player, who has the opportunity to develop habits that are common to many players of that character, which makes him easy to read.
I’m talking about someone who is completely off the walls, fighting with euphoria: their mixing it up is a lottery rather than a premeditated play of hand. This is a human attribute, not a fighting game player one. It’s something you can summon based on who you are, not the ‘level’ you are at. You could have it at day 1 or day 1000.
Because of their lack of respect for safety, they deploy moves (in sf4 at least) that are unsafe on block but also have the trade-off of great travel distance and good enough start-up time that most humans, when not selectively looking for it, cannot react well to it. The moves also often bear well-guarded hurtboxes that shut down pre-emptively stuffing the move, or where this can only be done if the timing is perfect.
Because the opponent is unpredictable which prevents the player from focus-enhancing his reactions, and his non-specific reactions (reactions to things you cannot predict) are inadequate, he cannot shut down the options that other players can and that he knows he ought to, and the opponent ends up having free reign of the stage which he ought not to have.
These opportunities to react could be jump-ins, or worse, punishes on block. The player always get caught looking for something else because their opponent always mixes up their timing and move selection without any consistent pattern, (*EDIT this part is also the definition of a top player–how about that) and by the time he has brought his mind to bear on what the opponent just did and instinctively reacts, they’re mashing out a reversal.
Basically, he doesn’t know what to look out for, and his reaction-speed when looking for everything at once or nothing at all is sub-standard.
As a result, battered and beaten, we have players who hold this conviction that they were the better player, or at least the smarter player, and there is this huge dissonance between the conviction of their worth and the humiliating results they keep getting. And I’m not going to say that their conviction is wrong, given that I’ve been there myself.
I call this The Ghandi effect.
There’s no real answer I can give to these players, other than to choose a different hobby, or else be prepared to put in a lot more time and effort than others have to who don’t seem to have this problem. In a genre of game that already is time-consuming, that might be too tall of an order, but proud people will struggle to admit defeat and often the players who have these complaints are the proudest.