Electronic Arts has had a lock on the NFL football league rights since 2004, giving it such a huge leg up that many former rivals have thrown in the towel on football video games.

But one startup has found a crack in EA’s football game monopoly. Quick Hit is announcing today that it has secured the rights to make online football games.

That’s a remarkable achievement for such a latecomer. Foxboro, Mass.-based Quick Hit was founded in 2008 by online games pioneer Jeff Anderson, who created Turbine (the online game publisher that was recently purchased by Warner Bros.). The company launched its browser-based Quick Hit online football game in October 2009. The game is free to play, meaning players can play for free and purchase virtual goods with real money.

Anderson (pictured) said in an interview that the number of players has been growing, though football is somewhat seasonal. Compete.com shows that Quick Hit has around 92,000 unique monthly visitors and that it peaked at 307,000 in December. ComScore, however, shows that the peak was around 1 million players a month in December and it’s more than 500,000 now.

Anderson declined to disclose exactly how many users Quick Hit has. Now that players will be able to play with any of the 32 NFL football teams, he expects it will become even more popular. But Quick Hit still has to secure a deal with the NFL players association, which controls the digital rights to use player names and images in video games. Anderson declined to comment on whether Quick Hit will secure those rights, though Quick Hit has signed a handful of players already.

From the start, Anderson said his team wanted to create a rich and authentic football game. Each online multiplayer game can be played in anywhere from five minutes to 30 minutes. It takes minutes to get started and requires no big download.

“We wanted the NFL from the beginning, but we had to prove to ourselves, fans and the league that we were worthy,” Anderson said. “This elevates the status of our games.”

“We are excited to partner with Quick Hit and enhance the gaming experience online for our fans,” said Hans Schroeder, a vice president at the NFL, in a statement. “This partnership is a key part of our goal to expand and enrich the online experience for NFL fans throughout the year.”

Quick Hit has an opening now because EA has dropped making Madden NFL games for the PC, concentrating instead on console games. Besides Quick Hit, 505 Games recently launched a new console-based video game called Backbreaker, which has no NFL license. But Backbreaker has a true-to-life Euphoria physics engine which makes the tackles in the game truly brutal. (The average Metacritic rating of that game is 54, despite 3 years of development, whereas Madden scores an average of 85 out of 100, according to the review aggregator. Still, it looks like the rivals are starting to creep up on EA’s Madden NFL franchise from different directions.

After Quick Hit’s announcement just now, EA said in a statement, “The NFL has been a great partner for nearly two decades.  This announcement has no impact on the relationship we have in place to create great NFL-branded products. The exclusivity agreements we have with the NFL and NFLPA have always been specific to video game consoles.”

Quick Hit has 25 employees and has raised $13 million in two rounds from New Enterprise Associates.