Warburton will become the youngest World Cup captain, aged 22 years and 341 days, when he leads Wales into battle against Pool D favourites South Africa on Sunday.
It gives the Cardiff Blues flanker an immediate opportunity to test himself against one of the world's best opensides in South African Heinrich Brussow.
And Gatland believes his skipper will win an army of new admirers when they witness the form that has impressed European audiences over the past 12 months.
"There are three definite what I consider world-class (openside) players at the moment in terms of (David) Pocock, (Richie) McCaw and Brussow," said Gatland.
"And I would rate Sam in that category as well.
"A lot of people haven't seen a lot of Sam Warburton, but I think he will create an impact after a few games in this World Cup."
Warburton, who captains a team containing nine World Cup debutants, will need to boss the critical breakdown area if Wales are to have any chance of registering only their second win in 105 years against the world champion Springboks.
"Brussow caused a few problems in 2009 against the Lions," Gatland added. "He is a genuine openside in terms of getting on the ball and creating turnovers."
And Warburton said: "I haven't played against Brussow yet, but I have been watching clips of him and he is incredibly effective in that area (the breakdown).
"He's one of the better players in the world at the breakdown at the moment."
Gatland has made three changes from the side that beat England in a World Cup warm-up game last month, recalling centre Jonathan Davies, hooker Huw Bennett and prop Adam Jones.
Rhys Priestland has been handed the fly-half role, while a versatile James Hook again features at full-back in an exciting unit alongside wings George North and Shane Williams.
Elsewhere, Gatland has sprung a surprise in the second-row, where Newport Gwent Dragons lock Luke Charteris is preferred to Cardiff Blues forward Bradley Davies, while calf muscle injuries sideline fly-half Stephen Jones, prop Gethin Jenkins and number eight Ryan Jones.
And Lee Byrne, the 2009 Lions' first Test full-back against South Africa in Durban, does not even feature among the matchday 22, with Leigh Halfpenny providing bench cover.
Wales lost their last three games against the Springboks by an aggregate of just 12 points, and South Africa are unlikely to deviate from their heavy-duty tactics in those Tests after naming five forwards among their replacements.
"The last three or four times we have played them we've been in a position to win," said Gatland. "Some of the losses were a little bit our own downfall in terms of accuracy at key moments.
"It's just working hard to get over the line. We are not going into this game hoping they have a bad day and hoping everything goes well for us.
"We are going into this game with some confidence. We've had a good preparation period and physically feel in great shape. We are looking forward to Sunday.
"It is fairly obvious which way they are going to play the game - they are going to take us on up front, which is what we expected.
"They want to dominate you physically, and it wasn't a surprise to us that they went for a 5/2 split on the bench."
Gatland is relishing the prospect of unleashing "attacking players" Hook and Priestland on South Africa.
"We are trying to get one of our best players on the field in James Hook," he added.
"There was a comment from
(former Wales captain) Gwyn Jones a few weeks ago when he said James was probably the best Welsh 10, the best Welsh centre and the best Welsh full-back.
"We were really impressed with Rhys in the first couple of warm-up games (against England), and we felt that combination with James at 15 and having two attacking players at first receiver, with James being able to do that as well, gives us an opportunity.
"Rhys has confidence, he has got a very good balance in his game. He is an effective runner, has a good boot on him and he has that self-belief you look for as a coach."
Priestland, 24, made his Test debut as a replacement against Scotland during last season's RBS 6 Nations Championship, and he has won just four caps.
But Gatland has been impressed with his maturity and composure, which was highlighted by an assured display against England at Twickenham last month.
On that occasion, Priestland moved from full-back to fly-half with barely 10 minutes' notice when Stephen Jones' calf tightened during the warm-up.
Hook, meanwhile, had an outstanding game from full-back in the return England encounter seven days later, contributing 13 points that included a try and two long-range penalties.
On the second-row selection, Gatland said: "It was a close call, but I think at the moment Luke is our number one. He played really well against England.
"He's in great shape, and the way he has improved in the last few months has been outstanding."
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