In any class-based video game, you generally have some form of balance. Agile classes come with a lack of health, while power classes exchange speed for pure power, with other classes scattered between them. So the idea of a mobile, strong ace of all trade class appears to spit in the face of all this. In any other game, people would say that Soldier is overpowered. What few consider is that he may actually be so.
If you look at his base stats, Soldier does seem rather mundane. High health, low walking speed, high damage weaponry with average reload times. If you played Soldier the way a TF_Bot plays Soldier, you’d see him as a balanced class, capable of being taken out between rockets and while reloading. Newbies will start playing Soldier this way, until they see someone else rocket jumping everywhere.
That’s one half of Soldier’s sheer power: rocket jumping. Soldier has a slight resistance to his own explosives. He can use and abuse this to travel huge distances. Not just upwards, but forwards and backwards and all over the place. The only costs here are health and loaded rockets, but you can’t just jump everywhere willy nilly. Competitive players spend ages working out the most optimum routes to central control points, using as little health or ammo as possible. Or nabbing any health and ammo they can get along the way.
The other half of Soldier’s strength is in his versatility. Soldier can play pretty much any role. He can rain death from above using weapons like the Air Strike and the Base Jumper. He can spend eternity constantly moving with the Gunboats. He can play a forward pusher using the Buff Banner or be a more supportive player with the Concheror and the Battalion’s Backup. He can be a Sniper with the Direct Hit or a self-sufficient monster with the Black Box. Soldier even has the luxury of being characters from other video games with the Mantreads. The only thing Soldier can’t really do is place buildings or deploy Ubercharges, but the strength of his rocket launcher and the utility of his Banner items are pretty close.
Soldier’s versatility is part of his weakness. He’s always second best. Medics support better. Snipers snipe better. Demomen demolish better. But this versatility means Soldier can excel anywhere and everywhere. The weakness is worth the added and varied power a Soldier can bring.
So if Soldier is so powerful, why isn’t everyone spamming him? Well, smart players do spam him. In competitive play, there’s always a Soldier around. But Soldier requires a lot of hidden skill. You may have great aim but Soldier needs aim, game-sense and adaptability. He also needs timing and training. No one can properly rocket jump in a single day. No one can get that perfect rollout that’s required to win the middle control point or push that cart or capture that flag. And let’s be frank, most people these days don’t have the desire or dedication to push themselves with Soldier, not when there is more obvious power around, in the form of Heavies, Engineers and Demomen.
There’s also the coolness factor here. Scouts, Spies and Snipers all have more amusing playstyles compared to that of Soldier. Super speed and agility, invisibility and covert head-shooting appeal more to those who come in from other games.
Soldier is powerful. He’s technically overpowered. It takes little to tip Soldier one way or the other with his unlockable weapons. Even with pure stock, Soldier remains powerful. He is the other rock that every other class is balanced around (the first being Medic). But much of Soldier’s power is locked away behind a wall of training and patience. That’s why so many people accept Soldier’s power.