Professional video game players just got a big endorsement: NBA star Gordon Hayward has signed on with the IGN Pro League.

Hayward (pictured), a forward for the Utah Jazz pro basketball team, will try his hand at the eSport of professional video games in a league sponsored by News Corp.’s IGN Entertainment. The move will bring more credibility and new attention to the fledgling spectator sport of pro gaming, which has struggled for years to be recognized as a real sport.

Hayward’s signing should put to rest the notion that video games are for non-athletic kids. Hayward will play in his first professional match in the StarCraft II gaming tournament in Atlantic City during Oct. 6-9. Like a number of pro athletes, Hayward is passionate about StarCraft II, a real-time strategy sci-fi game published by Blizzard Entertainment.

“I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember.  I’m a competitive guy, and I love the competitive nature of video games,” Hayward said in a statement. “Pro-gamers are really sports stars themselves. The mental strategy that goes into planning your next move and what your opponent is going to do are skills you need to be successful playing basketball — and playing StarCraft II.”

Other pro athletes that have a passion for gaming include Kevin Garnett, a forward for the Boston Celtics, who recently played American troops during Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty Black Ops event.

Hayward will train with IGN coaches and challenge global StarCraft II stars who go by nicknames such as IdrA, Select and WhiteRa. The prize pool will be $100,000 at the Caesars Atlantic City event, which will host 256 qualifying players.

David Ting, general manager of eSports and head of research at IGN Entertainment, said that games are becoming a dominant entertainment medium and the event aims to show how pro gaming can become as popular as mainstream athletic sports. IGN launched its IGN Pro League in April and has 1.2 million unique visitors and 6 million page views so far for its online tournaments.

[photo credit: the big lead]